Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Moon And Sixpence - Somerset Maugham

My first ever book by Somerset Maugham. And I fell in love with the author.

The story is about a painter called Charles Strickland. And it isn’t quite a story. It’s character sketching.

What could possibly claim to make it a story however, is the extraordinary nature of the turn of events or the unexpectedness of the turn of events that eventually turned a most common man to a celebrated painter. (Please read the word extraordinary as out of ordinary or even abnormal).

Charles Strickland, a very common man whom no one would expect to notice anything in, one fine day, abandons all - family, hometown, job and leaves to Paris where he begins painting. He lives in a miserable condition but goes about his living without any complaint or expectation.
He later moves to an island where he paints some more, gets married, creates some masterpieces and dies of leprosy.

Since the protagonist was a man of idiosyncrasies or eccentricities, and chose to live in oblivion and showed no interest in anything or anyone particular, it can be said that the author’s undertaking to sketch his character was an impossible task.

The author has tried to construct the story of the man from episodes here and episodes there, glimpses here and glimpses there. Where the links are broken, the author tries to help with educated guesses that stem from his own understanding of man and life.

The book, in summary is the incomplete story of Charles Strickland. But it is so well written, full of character sketching, imagery and meaningful insights that it can be the work, only of a genius.

The book also has interesting incidents related to people the author knew in common with Strickland.

If you want to know how banality can be made interesting by way of narration, you should read this book. If you want to understand what ‘bringing out the beauty of the language’ is, then you should read this book.

The book is full of meaningful insights into the subtle workings of human psychology.

The faculty for myth is innate in the human race. It seizes with avidity upon any incidents, surprising or mysterious, in the career of those who have at all distinguished themselves from their fellows and invents a legend to which it then attaches a fanatical belief. It is the protest of romance against the commonplace of life.

I loved the last line.

It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.

I agree. Suffering can make people cynical and bitter.

Everyone likes power. I can’t imagine a more wonderful exercise of it than to move the souls of men to pity or terror.

What I had taken for love was no more than the feminine response to caresses and comfort which in the minds of most women passes for it. It is a passive feeling capable of being roused for any object, as the vine can grow on any tree; and the wisdom of the world recognizes it’s strength when it urges a girl to marry the man who wants her with the assurance that love will follow. Its an emotion made up of the satisfaction in security, pride of property, the pleasure of being desired, the gratification of a household, and it is only by an amiable vanity that women ascribe to it, spiritual value. It is an emotion which is defenseless against passion…

Isn’t this the founding principle of the institution of arranged marriage? How beautifully, completely and vividly the author has explained this!

She may have had no particular feeling for him but succumbed to his wish from propinquity or idleness, to find then that she was powerless in a snare of her own contriving.

It is hard that a man’s exterior should tally so little sometimes with his soul.

He was always blundering. He had a real feeling for what was beautiful and the capacity to create only what was commonplace.

People talk of beauty lightly and having no feeling for words they use that one carelessly so that it loses its force.; and the thing it stands for sharing its name with a hundred trivial objects is deprived of dignity. They call beautiful a dress, a dog, a sermon and when they are face to face with Beauty, they cannot recognize it. The false emphasis with which they try to deck their worthless thoughts blunts their susceptibilities. Like the charlatan who counterfeits a spiritual force he has sometimes felt, they lose the power they have abused.

I have always felt this very strongly. I use my adjectives carefully and advise friends to do so. I have in the recent times felt particularly annoyed with certain useless adjectives having become popular. “Cool”, “Awesome”! everything is cool. Everything is awesome.
What a lousy way to cover up your poor vocabulary!

Until long habit has blunted the sensibility, there is something disconcerting to the writer in the instinct which causes him to take an interest in the singularities of human nature so absorbing that his moral sense is powerless against it. He recognizes in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little startles him; but sincerity forces him to confess that the disapproval he feels for certain actions is not nearly so strong as his curiosity in their reasons. The character of a scoundrel, logical and complete, has a fascination for his creator which an outrage to law and order. I expect that Shakespeare devised Iago with a gusto which he never knew when, weaving moon beams with his fancy, he imagined Desdemona. It may be that in his rogues, the writer gratifies instincts deep rooted in him, which the manners and customs of a civilized world have forced back to the mysterious recesses of the subconscious. In giving to the character of his invention flesh and bones he is giving life to that part of himself which finds no other means of expression. His satisfaction is a sense of liberation.

Wow! I never thought about this one.

Unconsciously perhaps we treasure the power we have over people by their regard for our opinion of them, and we hate those upon whom we have no such influence. It is the bitterest wound to human pride.

I wander along trails that others have blazed for me.

Some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always, a nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played remain but a place of passage. They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent to which they may attach themselves. Perhaps some deep rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history. Sometimes, a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before among men he has never known as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last, he finds rest.

The mills of God grind slowly but they grind exceedingly small.

Other lines I noted down….

Eccentricity is necessity to becoming great.

On the streets of Paris….clerks, shopgirls, and members, male and female of the professions which make their profit of the frailties of mankind…

I wanted to fight with him… But, his cordial agreement with all I said cut the ground from under my feet…

A nonchalant sarcasm

On the other hand,…………………

The book could have been slimmer by 40 pages (which are a painful read) but for the beauty of the language the author brings about in those 40 pages, as he also does with the remaining 120 pages.

Character sketching seemed kind of inadequate at places and not without instances of incongruence. At one point he describes a man as nonchalant, detached and very commonplace. At a different point he uses adjectives like ‘violent’ while referring to the same man and he uses no example to illustrate or justify the use of that adjective. I became confused. In certain places, character sketching seemed inadequate and ineffectual.

While a few characters in the beginning of the book seem inadequately sketched, most of them are very well sketched. You can ‘see’ them.

The absence of a plot or a story notwithstanding, you don’t tire of reading it and the experience of reading it is not dissatisfying. It is a pleasure to read each sentence that brings out the beauty of the language.
Even if the whole book were about nothing, I would still read it merely for it’s literary splendor.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Kanthapura - Raja Rao

This is one of those books students of English literature study as a part of their curriculum in the universities. I got to hear about this book from a friend Priya who is a gold medalist from Mysore University.

The author, Raja Rao, is a critically acclaimed writer from the same district in Karnataka where I belong, namely Hassan. :-) He lived in France and the United States in his later years.
He participated in the Quit India Movement of 1942.
A winner of Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan and International Neustadt Prize for Literature, Rao died on July 8, 2006 at Austin, Texas, at the age of 97.

The story, as suggested by the title is about Kanthapura, a fictitious village in North Karnataka near Mangalore and its people. The time of the story, of course is the historic time of freedom struggle led by the towering figure of Mahatma Gandhi.

In a quiet village that moved in its own slow pace, where people live in the midst of their customs, traditions, superstitions and skirmishes, a disturbance is caused when sparks of awareness cause certain young boys and girls to act differently from the rest – when some of them enter the pariah quarters, when a 12 year old widow walks about without shaving her head, when young people hold secret meetings to cause revolt against the British, etc.

One of the important characters is Moorthy who not only becomes a devotee of Gandhi but inspires other young fellows as well to follow him. Eventually, the entire village, including the women folk, children, Brahmins and untouchables become involved in the freedom movement and in their own small way, contribute to the movement.

The story is very dry.
It’s somehow difficult for me to believe that the picture he is trying to paint itself is dull and dry.
This is because RK Narayan, Khushwant Singh, Ruskin Bond and others have painted the same rural India and their writing is so charming, interesting, engaging and amusing while providing insights into the social life in rural areas.

The specialty of this book I believe, is owing to the fact that although it is an English book, it is as good as a Kannada book translated into English WORD BY WORD.

Is he my uncle’s son that he should favour me?
That son of concubine!
Corner house Moorthy
He wants me to be his dog’s tail... I refused…
If we do not stop this...We all shall eat mud...
If you are the sons of your fathers....then fight that rascal…
Broad filigree Benares saree…
Lantana lane…
Paraiah Rachanna, Beadle Timmayya…

Even as I read these sentences, I know which particular sentence in Kannada the author conceived in mind which he then translated into English.

He has painted the most accurate picture of rural life of India during pre Independence era.
It is accurate but certainly not beautiful.

Another thing : I am not sure if the nuances are all captured although the narration is accurate.

The nuances contained can be read but not felt or understood.

If you read the book for nuances, then you are reading the lyrics of a song but not listening to the are reading descriptions of a painting without actually seeing the painting.

He spat thrice to the east and thrice to the west as he stood at the village gate...
They beat their cheeks before the Kenchamma goddess and said “ We will never let these thoughts enter our minds”...
Women with shaven heads will welcome the bridegroom during the marriage...Wait and watch!

Would a non-Indian know what these mean? A non Indian or even a non Kannadiga will not be able to make any sense of the book.
This is one of those books authors write for themselves but not for readers.

While all the above observations summarize my experience of reading the book, I must mention that the book is what it is because the author meant it to be that way.
The story is narrated as seen by a grandmother in the village who is one among the characters, part of the story and part of the scene she is portraying.
It is therefore so matter-of-factly. If the narration had been as seen by someone outside the scene, an observer who had understood what was happening, then he would do justice to the nuances of Indian village life as he would have paused to observe and explain the purport of gestures and the meaning of words uttered by people.

The same rural stories told by RK Narayan, Khushwant Singh and Ruskin Bond are so different because they were bystanders and onlookers who observed village life (although they may have been villagers themselves sometime).

I did not find any literary splendour on the language front. The language is simple and that’s the only thing about the language.
It’s neither lyrical, nor beautiful nor rich nor juicy, nor crisp, nor brisk.
Imagery and portrait are also painful to follow.
On those fronts such as character sketching, beauty of language, plot, imagery and portrait, the book offers what can be expected from a grandmother’s narration; not fine, not subtle, not polished, but matter-of-factly, exaggerated and somewhat crude.

There are way too many characters. Ramaiyya, Thimmayya, Rachanna, Rangamma, Lakshamma, Seethamma, Venkamma, …and a hundred more… making the reading extremely painful.
The book could have done with half of the characters; for it is not as if each is a distinct character but one among the herd. Instead of giving a name to everyone in the herd, the author could have picked just one in each herd or category. Characters seem redundant because they are all the same and all doing the same thing.
Once again, if a grandmother would be narrating, she would simply say all that she could remember and exaggerate some. She would not care to summarize or organize or structure her story.

The book at best, it gives me glimpses of things such as the way people in rural India conversed among themselves, their demeanour, disposition, mindset, social system, caste system, the state of widows in a society, the place of God in society, etc.
Such a book would of course deeply interest the westerners who cannot stop being fascinated by the rural life, buffaloes on roads, hungry children, customs and traditions of India.

And this was the only one-liner I noted down.

Less strange are the ways of Gods than are the ways of men.
If you have patience, you may read this book.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Beeti Hui Galiyon Se...

Beeti Hui Galiyon Se… Phirse Guzarna Yaara Seeli Seeli…

This old melody by Lata from the movie Lekin is a haunting one.

The experience of revisiting places of the past can churn much philosophy out of even those who dwell on the lower planes of self awareness.

One of these days, a woman of 28, traversed those roads that she had lived by twelve years ago.

An apartment painted in ivory and sea green on a tree lined street.
The tulasi plant in front of every house. Rangoli designs at every doorstep.
Old trees that formed an arch above the road.
A mendicant playing the shehnai went from door to door, receiving alms.

The place itself had not changed much but remained what it had been. And therefore it reflected with a more pronounced effect those changes that had come upon her person over the years that had passed.

There she saw a girl walking those roads and lanes without taking particular notice of her surroundings.
Her mind was elsewhere.
The girl was making plans for her future. There was very little doubt and much certainty.
She was dreaming. She was a girl of sixteen.

In her world, there was black and there was white. And almost everything belonged to one category or another.
The choices, therefore, were pretty simple.
Life had only two dimensions, perhaps three.
To define life was a possible undertaking and there were some definitions.
She had seen very little. And hence, she knew a lot.

The woman stood there and watched the girl of sixteen walking away with a spring in her step, down that road of tantalization, at the end of which was disillusionment.

There was a philosophical, poignant smile on the woman’s face and a faraway look in her eyes.
She shed a silent tear for the girl of sixteen.

She shed a tear for herself who had to let go all the castles built in air to make humbler dwellings out of stone and mortar.

A woman of 28 smiled affectionately at a girl of sixteen.
A woman of experience smiled at a girl of innocence.
A woman who had encountered destiny smiled poignantly at a girl who knew free will.
A woman who had seen the vicissitudes of life smiled at the naivety of a girl who was busy drawing accurate plans for her future.

A woman of 28, traversed those roads, one of these days, only to revisit herself, a girl of sixteen.

Someone rightly said ‘There are more preposterous vicissitudes in life than a single philosophy can conjecture’.
The woman of 28 looked back in retrospection at all those vicissitudes that lay strewn on that road…

As the girl of sixteen continued her walk down that road……
There were ups and downs, curves and bends…all unforeseen.
Dimensions of life became manifold.
More knowledge was acquired and the picture became less clear.
Black and white remained but there were way too many shades of gray.
Who could define life?

A drift in the plane of existence.
A shift in the plane of awareness.
Exposure. Perspective.
Many amendments to a constitution.
A world gained and a world lost.

Some dreams that had taken flight but never found landing…
Others that had landed without taking off…
Those seeds that never sprouted…
And those flowering trees which had never been planted…

Proposals of man and disposals of God…
But more importantly, disposals of man superseded by proposals of God.

The setting of the story changed. So did the place and time.
But the story itself remained the same.
Love. Longing. And living.

And through all this changing time and weather, if someone had endured, it was her.

Through all this changing time and weather, if something had endured, it was her heart.
For it remained where it was born. At the age of sixteen and forever on that road of tantalization, at the end of which was disillusionment.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Khirganga - The Grand Finale

After returning from Rashol to Kasol, I rambled about in the streets of Kasol, entered some shops, saw some colourful merchandise on display – paintings, hats, hair bands etc, enquired about their prices, tried some trousers and returned to my room without buying anything – for want of space in my baggage and money in my pocket.

The next morning, as it turned out, my friends were tired and I could not succeed in pulling them out of their beds at the right time. The destination Khirganga, was 12 kilometers away – to be covered on foot and I was concerned because the plan was to return the same evening since I had booked my bus ticket back to Delhi.

So I set out alone, took the bus to Varshaini – the most mispronounced of all places, perhaps; Brasheni, Brusheni, Bursheni…and what not! Only when I saw the board on the bus, I knew the correct name and pronunciation – Varshaini!

When I reached Varshaini, I was contemplating whether to take a porter or not. And this was the first time I was thinking. Before this, I made sure I hired a porter even when my back pack contained nothing more than a packet of glucose, some almonds, a shawl, gloves and a topi. I had learnt that I could go on walking and climbing no matter what the distance but could not carry any weight upon me – even one kilo felt like a granite slab. I avoided taking even water bottle as it added to the weight. I quenched my thirst from the streams and springs on the way.

The Rashol climb was the first time I went without a porter as none was available. (I have told you Himacahl is different from Uttaranchal and labour is not easily available). And to my surprise, I did it! I carried my own bag for 8 kilometers!

When I had made up my mind not to take a guide or a porter this time and go alone, people came to me one by one and told me about a lone foreigner woman who was murdered by a Nepali on the same route.
Now I was in a dilemma. I spoke to the boys around, haggled some, and hired a guide for 150 rupees a day. In the meantime, my friends arrived in a taxi and announced that they would trek to a nearby place as they were tired.

The walk upto Rudranag was not so pleasant. Although I could see forests and trees on all mountains around us, there was no shade where we were walking and it was very sunny.

As we walked by apple trees… Can you see the apple?

As we approached Rudranag… the scene changed. The weather was cooler, there was the drone of water in the valley and it was greener.

This place is Rudranag…

The place gets it's name from this stream which has the shape of a snake. The stream is likened to Shiva’s snake.

That’s river Parvathi roaring in the valley. It’s a beautiful yet frightening sight. This was one of the mightiest water flow I had seen in all my Himalaya trip. The plunge, the volume of water, the pace, the force…
I stood on the bridge over it as I took this picture. The picture does no justice at all to the real thing…

Once we crossed the bridge, it was a different world. It was heaven. The forest became denser.

My fatigue vanished. I was in raptures as I beheld the scenery around me. It was green all around and moist. There were tall Devdar trees and as I observed, there were different kinds of Devdars in that area, the leaves were of different shapes, branches on some trees were perfectly horizontal, branches on others stooped low, the colour varied from a parrot green to an emerald green – this was unlike what I had observed in places I had seen before where only one type of Devdar existed in an area and provided no chance to make comparisons.

As we trekked, we met people who were returning from Khir Ganga. Almost all of them told us “Wahan kuch nahin hain(there is nothing there). It’s a waste of time. Wapas laut Jao(Retrace your steps)” .
I decided to continue on my trail…

I can’t stop being amazed at people, their ways and their taste. When we revealed our plan to go to Vasudhara from Badri, people who had returned from Vasudhara discouraged us with similar comments. When we went there the next day, we were blown by the snow covered mountains all along our trail and so close to us! We were blown by the green meadows with yellow flowers and the white horses grazing nearby! The destination waterfall itself was not much but the journey was so breathtaking!

And people say ‘there is nothing in that place!’
The thing is, to most of the people the journey means nothing. Destination is all that matters to them. What a pity! They don’t know what they are missing.

We stopped at a small dhaba for some refreshments. There were wooden benches inside. The motley mix of people there made it a rather interesting place. There were foreigners smoking away noisily from the chillum. They watched in awe, an experienced local fellow inhale from the chillum a really long puff of smoke and exhale a large amount of smoke. The others tried to imitate him but could not match his capacity. He surely had bigger lungs than the rest. Or perhaps, it came with experience.

Right across me, sat a Mauni Baba. He was on an oath of silence: a 12-year period silence. He had completed 8 years. There were four more to go. He spoke in sign language which the locals seemed to understand completely, although I could understand only a little.

We continued.

Parvathi was roaring in the valley. I wanted to go down and touch the waters.

There were streams all along the way.

I was in raptures.

By four, we reached a clearing. There were a few huts, wooden shops and makeshift dwellings here and there. The clearing offered a 360 degree panoramic view.
This place was Khirganga.
A grey blanket of clouds covered the afternoon sky.

The legend about this place is: Shanmukha or Subramanya, the elder son of Shiva had pangs of hunger in this place. Lord Shiva planted his trident at a spot and what came out was kheer (payasam), a sweet made of milk. That’s why the name Khirganga.

We proceeded to see the spot.

On the way, my guide entered a dhaba and greeted people he knew and told them what he was doing there, while I stood at the entrance.
A man seated on a chair, with his back to me, turned and said “Namaskara. Chennagiddeera?
That was a moment that marked the beginning of a friendship. A special friendship.
I walked up to the fellow Kannadiga, with a smile on my face and spoke to him. He introduced himself as Arun. People there knew him as Arun Babaji. He invited me to visit his dwelling (not far from that place), after I had returned from seeing the milky waterstream. I said I had to return the same day. He said I had come to a beautiful place and I should stay there overnight. I smiled.

When I and the guide reached the spot, what we saw was a narrow stream of water. But on the bed, a layer of cream – like moss had formed, giving the water, the appearance of milk from a distance. Perhaps the water contained some natural chemicals which caused the deposit of moss on the bed. I took a picture but deleted it the next day to make room for more scenery. I now regret having done that, for such a water stream is indeed a rare thing to find.
Anyway, here is a picture stolen from the web.

Nearby was a hot water spring in the open, for men. Next to it was an enclosure for women.

As I returned, I saw that the grey blanket was still there but had uncovered a small portion of sky at the west through which the sun appeared on the horizon. The effect was that the whole evening was washed with a yellow. I love this effect. I have always loved it.

I changed my mind about returning the same day :-)

It was getting cold.
I rested in the dhaba for a while. It was warm inside as there was a Tandoor that was lighted and stoked from time to time. The floor was covered with thick quilts. There were some foreigners and some local folks around the Tandoor. I rested for a while, ate ‘Soji ka Halwa’ and set out with my guide to meet Arun Babaji.

A short distance away, in the midst of several Devdars and other trees, stood a giant Devdar. This must have been a very old tree, for I noticed that its root was forked into two or three all of which were big and broad. Usually, there is just one root. The area around the root had been dug and leveled with the effect of creating a sort of platform, 3 feet above the leveled ground on which stood the Devdar. A tarpaulin was raised to a height of 6-7 feet from the ground. On the platform was a small bed, a few boxes containing provision and eatables, some blankets and then some firewood.
This was the home of Arun Babaji. This has been his home for 18 years.

As I entered his home I saw that Upma was cooking in a pan that sat on a heap of firewood. Baba was sitting in front of the fire and stoking it. He welcomed me with a smile, placed a mat before the fire on which I made myself comfortable.

He wore a white dhoti and a T-shirt. He had salt and pepper beard and wore a cap in the fashion of the local people. He spoke to me in English. He had a calm face, a fair complexion a smile on his face and eyes that betokened innocence and humility. I was simply exhilarated about coming close to a person unlike anyone I had met before.
As we were making conversation, the Upma was ready. He asked the guide to pluck leaves from a nearby shrub. He served Upma to both me and the guide. In that cold weather, and after nearly a month of having north Indian food, Upma came as a welcome delight.

He enquired about me, my family, my education, job, my journey, etc.
But I was not able to learn much about him.
He was born in Bangalore. He left home when he was 16 or 17 to live in the mountains. This tree was special for him and he knew it even before he had seen it. When I asked him why he had made such a choice, he simply said, he loved nature.
Didn't he feel cold, sleeping in the open under a tree? 'This tree God keeps me warm'. Occasionally a jungle bear paid a visit, but did no harm.
When I enquired about his lineage, he said he was a Harijan.
When I asked him “Do you preach?”, he said, “No, I practice”.

He had travelled all over the world. US, Europe, Australia…..many other places, I have now forgotten.
When I asked him who provided for all that, he said, “HE takes care of me”.

He shared with me a few jokes. Good ones, I must say. Hitler went to an astrologer to know when he would die. The astrologer said “On a Jewish holiday”. How did the astrologer know? Well, any day Hitler died would be declared a Jewish holiday!

We chatted thus and did not notice that the evening had turned into night. He pointed to the sky and I looked up. There was the crescent of the moon against a dark blue –cobalt sky. All the trees and their branches stood out in a single continuous silhouette. There was perfect stillness and silence in the air.

It was time for Babaji to bathe – in the kund(hot water spring). He invited me to join him in the morning for a cup of coffee – Bru Coffee! We said good night and I returned to the dhaba.
There I heard from the people, more about Babaji - that he was the son a of a very important person in India – the top ten rich list, that manisha Koirala had sent him a flight ticket when he wanted to visit Nepal, that he was not a Harijan but a Brahmin or a Thakur(Kshatriya), that he conversed with scientists, that people revered him a lot – they would not light tobacco before him and much more... donno how much of it is true...

A small room close to the dhaba where I was to spend the night had a Tandoor inside which a boy lit before I hit my bed. It was warm but soon as the firewood had burnt itself out, it became cold. As I slept, my last thoughts were of babji – had I just met someone really out of the ordinary?

The next morning, I went to the Kund to take bath. I observed that there were a very few people here.
Just 2 ladies from Israel. The place was so clean. I thought for a moment about Gaurikund and felt the bile in my stomach rising.

I sat immersed in the water for half an hour. I felt that force of buoyancy was stronger than usual and I had to make an effort to remain immersed. I donno why but I felt very tired. Even after I came out of the water, I felt drained of all energy. I rested for a while and then slowly walked back.

I went to Baba’s tree where I had Bru coffee with biscuits.

And then we trekked a short distance on the trail leading to Mantalai.

There was smoke rising from the bottom of a Devdar. Some shepherds had lit a bonfire and left the spot withour completely putting off the fire. Babaji took a plastic bottle, filled it with water from a nearby stream and poured it over the fuming ashes.

Guess what flowers these are. Strawberry! In about 15 days time, all these would bear strawberry fruit. How I wished I could prolong my stay.

as we walked, we came by a bark of Silver Birch(Bhojpatra) fallen on the ground. Babaji peeled layers from the bark and gave them to me. These peels still rest between the leaves of my notebook.

Babaji took this picture.

This is a walnut tree close Babaji’s Devdar tree. He gave me a handful of walnuts that still rest on my kitchen slab.

It was time to leave. Word had been sent to the cook who usually cooked for Babaji that he was to expect two guests that noon.

The cook had been taught by Babaji how to prepare certain dishes to his liking.
Meals arrived in two thalis. The rotis were made of wheat grown in the hills. The curry was made of vegetables grown there. The curds had been made from the milk of Buffaloes that grazed in the vicinity of the hills.
The chutney was made of marijuana seeds!!!

When I first saw the plant, I wondered why God had created such a thing.
But I realized soon, ‘it all depends on how we use it’. There is not a single flaw in the creation of Nature. All beings are wholesome and perfect. It’s what we, men make of them that necessitates judgment.

A great meal it was. As pure as it could get.

Babaji shared some more jokes.
An accused man was questioned in the court “How old are you?” “35” said he. The judge asked him, “Had you not given the same answer 10 years ago in this very court?”, to which he replied “I am not the kind of a man who says one thing today and another thing tomorrow”!

We exchanged phone numbers. I gave him my address and said farewell to him.

The walk back was really easy. I scampered down to Varshaini in about 2 hours and took one last picture of a snow covered mountain.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


We began trekking to Rashol.
This place was an 8 kilometer climb from Kasol.

At this point, we reached a bridge which we had to cross to begin our trek.
The stream merges with Parvathi river here. You can see the muddy brown water on the far side.

As I stood on the bridge I took these two pictures. It was quite difficult as it was heaving up and down as people walked over it.

This was on my right.

This was on my left…and this the direction of our journey.

This trail on which we walked was by the Parvathi river for quite a distance. I did not get enough of taking pictures. Its raging, roaring and beautiful.

I stopped so often to take in the scene and take pictures that my friends got ahead of me and I lost sight of them. I had to quicken my pace to catch up with them.
It was a narrow muddy trail flanked on one side by the river and Deodar and Pine trees on the other. Beautiful. Isn’t it?

The walk was easy as the trail did not yet have a gradient. But after sometime, the climb began.
We passed through a few small villages and then entered the wilderness.

As I have mentioned in my poem,

Where the focal length of eyes adjust involuntarily
To view the towering mountains and faraway skies

And all objects small and nearby
Become unworthy of notice

As they take a bow and retreat silently
From your field of view
Wishing not be a barrier
In the great union between you and the faraway mountains

As if they read your mind
And at once understood
The need for your privacy
With the Devdars and the Pines

Almost all throughout the journey, my eyes ignored my immediate surroundings…but once in a way my attention was drawn to an exotic variety of ferns or a shrub touching my ankle and my knee…sometimes so beautiful, that I was compelled to take a picture… Check out the picture below....I was running out of my 4 GB memory and there were 3 more days left before I returned to Delhi….i had to be judicious.
Ah! It hurt to think of my return.

And the one below, I photographed, not because of its delicateness or beauty…. I think it is far from any delicateness… but because people in these areas depend on it for their living… it grows everywhere and like a weed, does not need any care or tending, but it’s worth its weight in gold…ok I am exaggerating…

This is the one from which the drug is made… marijuana…known as charas, hashish and other names.

As we came close to our destination, we started seeing a few huts here and there. There were a few villagers and mules that followed them. We stopped at a small wooden shop for some refreshments. There were two dogs scampering about innocently but I wished they were tied, scared as I am of dogs.
Here, I had the best carrot juice of my life.

The result of all the trekking – losing a few inches around my waist –was visible and I was happy about it. I could have indulged in the banana pancakes and other exotic stuff but ate with caution, just for the benefit of my waist.

It was beginning to get dark and cold. We trudged on…

There…….on the hilltop, we saw the village of Rashol at last. Oh! We were almost there… Or so it seemed!!!

As we got closer to the village, there were herds of mules stomping their way up the hill and each time I had my heart in my mouth as they came near as if to attack…
I would stand on the edge of an already narrow track, sometimes precariously and wait for the herd to pass. Sometimes, just to amuse myself, I would compete with the mules and climb as fast as I could so they would not catch up with me soon. :-)
But eventually they did.

I reached the village entrance before all others and stood there observing my surroundings.

Some men passed comments and laughed as they looked in my direction.
Men are men I thought. Wherever you go. :-)
All the kids around stared at me. I smiled, and they smiled back.

On some of the rocks were written the words “Do not touch. This is a holy place. 1000 rupees fine”.

My friends joined me and we started making enquiries about a certain Chunnilal.

We found him and followed him to what seemed like a house.
It was cold. We had chai. It started drizzling outside.
We rested inside and started hearing with interest, Chunnilal account of the place, its culture, myths etc.

Thanks to my absent mindedness, I did not follow his account completely. But from whatever I heard, I gathered that this place and its people were indeed different and worth exploration.

There were not so many stories about Rashol itself but there were way too many stories about Malana, 12 kilometers from Rashol, further up the mountains.
There is a lot of legend about Malana. It is a world by itself. Since there was no motorable road to the place all these years and is situated high up the mountains, this place has had no definite links with the outside world. One of the many legends has it that these people are descendants of Alexander, The Great and some of them therefore, have blue eyes. But many in the mountains denied it.
All this knowledge about the place had led us to include this place in our plan. But when we reached Rashol, we were not sure.

Chunnilal told us more about it.
Their ‘devta’ or deity is believed to be a very powerful one. ‘Jamlu’ is what they call their deity.
Further talking to Chunnilal revealed that the deity ‘Jamlu’ was the father of Parashuram. That’s when when a bulb went on in my mind and I turned to him sharply to ask him “Parashuram ke pita the?” He nodded. “Jamadagni?” I asked. Yes, he said. Oooooo……
BTW, Jamadagni was one of the most powerful sages ever known, about whom you will read, if you read the Mahabharat.

People here do not touch anyone outside the village. They are hospitable to visitors but you better know your limits. Those violating the rules of the place will be ostracized if they are natives(and eating together with an outsider is a violation) and if they are outsiders , they will be fined.

There was a fire sometime before and most of the old houses were destroyed. I believe their God is not at all happy about the village developing links with the outside world gradually. The old temple also suffered damage in the fire.

Chunnilal and frenz advised us to go to Khirganga instead as they said it was a difficult climb to Malana and not much was left.

Presently, we were taken to our place of resting, a place owned by Chunnilal and done up to receive guests. Our rooms were on the first floor of a two storey wooden building. It was dark already, so I took a picture of it only the next morning…
I have my doubts but I think this was the place… or it looked very much like this place

The whole place was made of wood. Devdar wood. How it smelled! Aahh………
On the floor of the balcony that looked down upon the valley, thick mattresses and warm blankets were spread. There were a few incandescent bulbs.
The guys took the room that had a music system and we took the other one.
All of us settled down in the balcony and made ourselves comfortable.
We were joined after sometime by Chunnilal and his friends.
Chunnilal, who sold the drug to people, awed everyone with stories of how he helped different tourists pack the drug carefully in the least dubitable of places and manner, so as to fool the notorious police…inside a pen, inside this and that….etc.

The men prepared their chillums and drew long breaths/inhalations of the drug with a bubbling sound.

Soon, there were swirls of fumes in the air and the smell of the Devdar became obscure.

I turned my attention to other things. The wooden panels on the parapet of the balcony had some artwork on them; created with a sketch pen or ink … some of them were created by travelers who had stayed there previously.

There was absolute silence in the air, space and space and more space as far as you could feel and perfect stillness. I sat quietly in that silence understanding fully well that this kind of silence was not to be found anywhere except in the mountains.

Suddenly one of them remembered that there was a music system and soon after, rock music was playing aloud.

Silence became obscure.

Dinner arrived. Rice and curry.

I retired to bed.

4:30 AM. I peeped out of the window. It not dawn yet. But soon….
I woke up and walked out to the balcony, camera in my hand. I was hoping to see some magic of a mountain dawn. And this was what I saw…

As the sun rose higher…

The more the team delayed our departure from this place, the happier I was. I was hoping that the sky would become clear and those faraway snow mountains would reveal themselves at the end of the valley… but the clouds would not just listen…

We had lunch, said goodbye to Chunnilal and left.

We stopped at the shop where I had that carrot juice. We rested, made plans for the next day, ate some and continued the climb down.

This scene was magical… a grey scene, completely cloud covered, and just a mountain with streaks of snow, glistening in sunrays that fell on them from I don’t know where.

And back I came to Kasol…

The Parvathi river…