The October Book Report; Posted Late. Jim Corbett.

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The October 2017 Book Report.

Jim Corbett.

(Forgot to shift it here when I wrote this on Facebook!)

It isn’t really about these books. I had no plan to cover them in a review. More than books to read, they are a part of me, and echo some of what I experience in the wild mountain back of beyond-ness. They are about much more than hunting man-eating predators. They are rich nature and place writing. They are also excellent specimens of narrative and descriptive writing. And they offer a wonderfully detailed cultural history of the hills of Kumaon and Garhwal, of the government and social order prevalent then.
Heidi speaks to my love of mountains but its setting is alien and I am no longer a little girl. Innocent love of place and rootedness are common traits that attract me to Heidi and Ruskin Bond. Bond is a personal idol and a writer after my heart because he creates beautiful prose and eternal meaning out of nearly nothing, located mainly in the hills or other lost places and about lost people, evoking a nostalgia for gentler times and attitudes that are gone or fast fading away.
Bond’s is essentially an urbane sensibility-even when he writes about jungles or ghosts; gentle, mildly sardonic at times and always civilised and soothing. Whereas Jim Corbett is the essential loner of the wilderness, at home on the machan or marching on foot through the wilderness missing not a change in the wind or temperature, and noting his observations in meticulous methodical detail, courageous and unflinchingly honest with himself and others and with a rare capacity for seeing the bigger picture way ahead of his time. For all this, he too is a personal hero and an inspiration.
Today I realised I had reached the end of a month and had forgotten all about my monthly goal of a book report. I looked at my shelves for a book to report on, and saw these books. This is a personal account of my own and some others’ engagement with the matter of wilderness and Jim Corbett.
I first read Corbett as a school girl and was suitably impressed with the adventures and the romance of this invincible hunter. We lived in the fore sts of MP, in a pure Mowgli setting, and tales of wolves carrying off children were part of the legends we grew up with. My mother had lived this life before me in various raliway bunglows in places like Khurda Road, Umaria and Gondia. My father, an army officer had jungle survival as part of his professional training and had served in rather wild places in Assam, and around the Chambal ravines in central India, and had encountered nearly every kind of wildlife. So my childhood experiences in lonely army outposts on edges of jungles and always far removed from the urban sprawl were layered on the subsoil of my parents’ stories.
Encountering a cobra on way to school stopped sending shivers down the spine after one or two occasions. News arrived of tigers and bears being sighted during night patrols and we felt safe and snug inside our pucca homes with locks. Then a snake or a scorpio would be sighted slipping into the house and there’d be an hour or two of commotion to get it out. One day the Tandons found a cobra coiled over their breakfast. That day Tandon Aunty had trouble concentrating on her teaching. She taught us Geography in the tin shed and tents collection of make do structures that served as our school. On a hike through the forest we were told how a bear had attacked a forest guard at the same forest inspection hut we were having our lunch at. We heard of hunters too.
So you see, Jim Corbett, Heidi and Ruskin Bond were what fit into my experience and imagination more easily than the glamorous and out of reach stuff occasional visitors from America, Bangalore or Delhi talked of. I had never owned or even seen shops that sold clothes like what they wore so casually, never imagined talking on topics they approached like experts. Books were practically my only window to the outside world, besides the summer holiday trip to a place of historical or geographical importance.

Just once a movie came to town that made us feel our story was being told. The movie was Bahadur Bacche. Anyone recall the line ‘kitna maza Ballu? Maza hi maza”?
The ideas of conservation has not become common currency, so that aspect of Corbett remained beyond my ken. It came to me in high school via the Nature Club, when I moved to a metropolis. For the first time in my life I was far away from jungles or any kind of rusticity. At first I talked a lot about where I had come from, to my new city bred friends. They found me amusing, and were not impressed or interested at all in my rapturous recall of adventures from the middle of nowhere. Slowly I stopped talking of how much fun life was back in the wilderness. I got busy with all the preoccupations of an urban teen – clothes, fashion, crushes, gossip, music, movies, socialising, studying, clearing exams in school. Then came college, and getting a job.
There was an exciting detour back to the hills and jungles, after University. A hostel mate excitedly showed us an article in Inside Outside about the mountain home of an Uncle, Dr. Lal of Sitla, at the edge of the protected forest outside the IVRI at Mukteshwar. He ran an NGO Chirag in the mountain villages around, and Smitie Misra and I promptly wrote to him to let us intern at CHIRAG.
Killing two birds with one stone we were, mixing work with pleasure all the way. The long walks from our village rental abode to the Post Office in Mukteshwar to encash our travellers cheques are etched in memory. The hoofbeat of the herd of racing deer, the never seen but always felt presence of leopards and the singular sighting of a fox in a field of golden wheat are still fresh without the help of any day to day fb records.
For all my love for the life far from the chaos or the city, I was beset with doubts and the then unlabelled and unsaid FOMO when time came to take up a regular job offer from Chirag. I came back to the rather predictable urban middle class trajectory of a corporate career, marriage, kids, slowly sidelining own career and dreams to family needs and husband’s priorities and so on. But the Chirag experience marked and taught me much for life.
Ages later, I started getting reacquainted with the wild in a more intimate way. Small hikes and overnight camping led to bigger steps. I hiked in the buffer zone of Corbett along trails made or followed by Corbett. I learnt of his hunts and his transition to a conservation advocate. I visited his home in Nainital and at the villages he helped settle around Choti Halwani, near Kaladunghi, and the canal network he initiated for agriculture. He is still fondly recalled as Carpet Saheb by the locals there.
On the Corbett trail from Kaladhungi to Powalgarh, the writing in his books came alive with every step. As it does every time I cross through Haridwar into Rishikesh and start climbing towards my home ahead of Rudraprayag.
I have come here nearly a century after Corbett did, chasing dreams and goals very different from his, with abilities not a patch on his (to me) divine powers. Yet, reading his The ManEater of Rudraprayag is the best testimony to what I witness on my journey here.
I always assumed most people who come to these areas are somewhat familiar with Corbett and his work. Imagine my surprise when a recent group of travellers turned out to have no idea about who Jim Corbett was and why a National Park they visited before arriving here is named so. Another visitor claimed to be a wildlife fanatic, self proclaimed expert on all there was to know about wild animals and the wilderness. On a hike to a nearby temple he insisted on returning from almost near the summit because “leopards are crazy” and the sun would set soon and he knew all about the mad and cruel ways of wild animals from watching youtube. I wish Jim Corbett ‘s bhooth haunts that fellow till he learns the proper way to educate himself about wild things.

 

 

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To Stand and Stare

Don’t Listen To Those Who Say Travelling With Kids Is Stressful – Mindful Travelling

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|   Sep 07, 2017
Don't Listen To Those Who Say Travelling With Kids Is Stressful - Mindful Travelling
The Unhotel

Unhotel Guest Blogger Kiran Chaturvedi is a trained sociologist and worked as a market research professional with the WPP Group for many years. She now organizes creative writing workshops and runs a mountain home-stay in Garhwal . She writes on social and cultural topics, places, as well as occasional fiction and poetry. She is a nature enthusiast and is active in initiatives for sustainable, holistic and greener living. In this blog piece, she affirms the need for Mindful Travelling for Kids. 

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Time was, that travel was undertaken mainly as a necessity, fortunate or unfortunate.A lot of family travel for most of us now is a lifestyle choice. Children know the names of distant and once exotic locations as holiday destinations of their last or forthcoming vacation. Fridge magnets, maps and globe models have no charm when all the world is a click or a plane ticket away.

Our children have hundreds of pictures and loads of shopping to prove how thoroughly we ‘did’ a destination. But at the end of all these wanderings, do our kids feel a sense of connection and belonging, of being at home anywhere in the world? Do they feel they have grown as explorers of their interior self and of what is around them? Mindless rushing around, ticking places off a list and clocking miles to keep up with the Joneses is one way of travel. The other way is the path of mindful travel, and staying awake to a sense of wonder.

It starts with us – the parents

Mindful travel for children starts with the parents, of course. We set the example, at every step by how we plan, and how we act. Mindful travel is about fully feeling the journey and the destination, as a series of one complete moment after another. Being fully present to what arises, we drop a load of expectations and agendas. We hold space for experiences to arrive and settle into us, and for us to have the receptivity to absorb what each new moment brings. When we watch snow peaks dazzle before us, we do not rattle off figures of height and distance, but let the awe of the moment settle on us and into us. We let arise what comes as a natural expression of our sense of that encounter, and not rush in to impose given frames of reference. We listen to new stories and refrain from counter arguments and rebuttals and showing off our ‘superior’ knowledge gleaned from other sources. We focus on experience.

Be Present to Connect

We keep the phone out of it as much as we can. We look at each other, and around us, and within us, rather than at the screen and at through the viewfinder all the time. At Hongkong harbour on a New Year’s eve when no one wished each other a happy new year nor exchanged any smiles is when I had my own mindfulness epiphany about travel. I seek connection when I travel, and not of the virtual kind. Else why move out of my couch in my own home and city? We can work out the rules of social media time before we travel, and stick to them. We of course need to lead by example, as always.

Soak up the Local

When we travel mindfully, less is more. No rushing through six countries in six days, please. At least we cut down on the number of things to do each day in each place. Stop by the wayside of something looks interesting. Don’t be fixated on rigid plans. Pay attention to the journey, not being only intent on arriving at a point in the shortest time possible. It can lead to some interesting results.We stopped by to watch jaggery making at a sugarcane farm once,and my children decided they would  never again eat gud ( jaggery), seeing how many bees fell into the boiling sugarcane juice ☺ and then when the sugar factory stink hit their noses later, they changed their mind deciding that anything which smelt so bad being made had to be worse than bee contaminated gud. We also discovered the church of Lady Sumro, and got to eat fresh tart ambis from mango orchards.  Keep extra time in hand. Do not run a tight ship with every minute dictated by the clock.

Involve the kids

Involve the children in the planning. If we are going to Paris, and have two days in hand, give one day fully to their choice and cover it slowly. If it is Disneyland, can we do lesser number of rides and maybe repeat a favorite ride and fully enjoy that rather than rush through ten rides with a FOMO dread lying heavy over the day? Years later, what our children will remember is the quality of the experience and not the number of rides they had. If your daughter wants to pose with Disney cartoon characters, can we let her linger with her favorite for as long as she can, rather than rushing her to pose with all the cartoons she can spot? Ask the kids how the ride makes them feel, and why they pick some as their favorites. Let it be their own story rather than the one sold to the world in brochures and films. Take the rides the kid want, even if they are not the most popular or your own favorites. Let them talk freely without interruption about what they felt. Be mindful towards them. I recall standing in the humongous line to get up to Eiffel Tower right after landing in Paris, and losing my temper over my son’s constant ‘are we there yet’. Did we really need to rush to do the most iconic (and most underwhelming) feature? Certainly not! We could have also just as well lounged on the wonderful grounds at the base of the monument and watched the crowds and had a picnic.

Ideate and choose destinations with the kids

We can start picking places off the tourist grid to travel, at least for some holidays. Ask the children about the kind of experiences they dream of, not about destinations or specific places. Then start to ideate on where to go, what to see, basis what they wish to experience. Keep it open ended and free wheeling, with the flexibility to change. Every place has stories to give us, memories to imprint. We just have to have an open heart. Go for agenda less walk in the neighborhood of your vacation stay. Talk to the locals. Get invited to a local home and listen rather than ask all the questions. Let impromptu plans develop. Accept meal invitations from strangers. Be the source of the curiosity rather than casting a surveyor’s eye on all.

Get more, go slow

Travel also can turn more mindful when we go slow. See if you can break the journey. Can you drive rather than fly to places, and walk instead of taking the car once at your destination? Once arrived at a place, can you linger? Can you make time to stand and stare? Once, we had camped overnight at Devariyatal Lake after trekking up to it in the afternoon. The next morning we were to move to the meadows at Chopta and attempt climbing up to Tunganath. The morning had broken clearer than pure crystal. The peaks of Chaukhamba and Gangotri Glacier were vanilla scoops waiting for us to dig into them. Some of us were eager to reach Chopta and catch the views from the higher altitude there. Some others refused to budge. The previous evening had been cloudy and cold, and this sun soaked morning was a thing of utter bliss. It would be a shame to walk away. On the other hand, we would not be able to claim we ‘covered’ the trek to Tunganath we had all set our eyes on. Finally we all stayed back. The moment was here and now. Rushing off to catch the same view from another location or to count one more climb on a list would only make us lose what we already had and give us a very short window of time with the new location. We caught every change of light over the snow, and every changing shade of water in the mirror lake. We had an impromptu yoga session, and an extended round of breakfast and tea. Endless stories were shared at one and only dhaba wala in the vicinity. We caught shepherds going up the meadow and local women gathering grass. We lazed around and rolled down the grassy slopes. We dropped our agenda and stayed mindfully aligned to what was present, instead of chasing a list. We slowed down and soaked up so much more.

Watch that breath

Then there are the micro practices of mindfulness that are such a boon to help us and the children find a calm centre during travel. Have you noticed how clenched and tight our bodies are, at any given time? On your holiday, let go the habit of holding our breath. Sit on a bench and focus on your breath. Slowly watch the air flow in from the nostrils and then leave after replenishing our bodies. Children love this sense of connection to their bodies. Cultivate the practice of mindful immersion in experiences. Encourage children to pay attention to the local flavors. How about picking produce at the local markets? Let children touch, smell, feel the fruits and vegetables and local produce. Let them try cooking a local recipe. Let them get familiar with the aroma, and develop their own understanding of the local flora and fauna. Encourage a mindful practice when you are away from the rush of your daily routine, and it will travel back home with you.

Engage, Involve and Immerse with the kids

Children will pick up the art of mindful observation and mindful immersion when they see you practice it. Encourage your children to see, hear, think, with complete immersion. This is the natural way a child engages with the world, but our discipline and structured school education eats away at this childlike ability to connect with the moment. Help your children find themselves again, away from the influence of school syllabus and rigid daily routine. This means not engaging in judgements, labelling or sorting and ordering their experience. Do not be eager to feed them with the facts about a place at one go, or to constantly evaluate what is being seen and ‘learnt’. Rather, let them engage with where they are and what is going on, and their curiosity will bring up questions. Allow them to explore the answers. What they learn and conclude will surprise you. A thirteen year old I know came up with the idea of breast milk banks in hospitals watching farm animals feeding calves that were not their own. She asked a few questions to the local farmhands and arrived at her own solution for human babies lacking access to mother’s breast milk. A young boy watched miles of farms in arid Madhya Pradesh being tended to by aerial application of crop protection. Months later, that sight inspired him to come up with a model of a quick landing-short runway air taxi service for urban areas. When the clamor of learnt ways of looking at the world can be silenced, a path opens up for fresh creative perspective to emerge. For something new to rise up, the mind needs to be a blank slate. We can provide the time and slow pace for children to do this, by putting aside our own preconceived ways of looking at things.

At its heart, mindful travel is about how you see rather than how much. It asks you to slow down. To absorb. To create connection rather than consume pre-packaged experience. Childhood is a great time to get introduced to the practice of mindfulness, and travel is a great opportunity for its practice.

*All pictures are personal pictures of Kira

 

 

The Cradle of the High Peaks

Yesterday I had an epiphany about man’s eternal pull to the mountains. It was triggered, fittingly, by the words of a Bhutanese landscape planner on Youtube. He reinforced something already felt in the deep dormant layers of my own knowing, never quite fully understood and owned, unsaid by me so far.

The man from Bhutan talked about how he can never fully physically feel at home anywhere else the way he does in his mountain kingdom. That the body makes its home as a part of the physical landscape and sometimes so does our soul. And how mountains, to his mind, did this precisely because of what seems their distancing features.

While they are no doubt difficult to get to, and beset with a lot of natural extreme conditions and access problems, it is these very qualities of impregnability that lend a sense of a charmed, protected and even secure sense of self to those who live in the cradle of the high peaks. I was pulled back to just such a discovery I and a friend had shared, years ago, to our own surprise. We were on a long road journey in the relatively remote and wild Central Himalayas, driving down to the plains through high, rugged peaks on roads that on one side hugged steep slopes going up and on the other side ended in deep and sharp drops into a raging river below. Tough as the terrain was, we found ourselves in a sort of flow after a while, and the winding road and the constant turns of the wheels became nearly as normal and natural to us as our breathing. We were one with the land, with the road and with the journey, and it was a happy time.

Then after a whole day’s drive, the road  stopped curving quite so much and  started stretching out straight in front of us. The cliffs and drops on our sides gave way to small mounds  and rocks and then endless vistas of flat green and brown and man made blocks placed together.  Almost at the same time, my friend and I looked at each other and wondered aloud, that though the driving was now easy, what was this odd sense of loss, a sense of being adrift that we were experiencing?

What we felt missing was the physical embrace, the cradling, the scaffolding of the ever-present looming massive bulk of earth, the rock solid presence of those peaks, and not just the beauty, not just the grandeur and snowy brilliance or the verdant bounty of the mountains.

Listening to the Youtube recording, I heard the landscape design expert say that for him and his country folks, the terrain of their mountain kingdom was their biggest source of sustenance and SECURITY! And he further went on to say that those mountains were indeed the protectors of the people in a very real physical sense in olden times, and today the culture still sees them as such. Well, I say !! This was just so like what I had felt – that the mountains were somehow holding us safe, enclosed, enfolded, with all their curves and highs and recesses and valleys, and when we reached the plains we were left wide open and on our own – so distant from the large, benign, overarching physically powerful entities that are the mountains.

I wonder if any of you have also felt this way, or feel a connection with what I am saying. The mountains, to me seem to be about arriving, settling in, and falling into rhythm.  They are about being rooted, about being one with something solid and unconquered and perhaps never fully conquerable. They are also about a certain surrender, a certain acceptance. They are saying, like little else can, that this is it, this is here, this is now.

So tell me, do you feel that any place, any physical landscape that pulls us, pulls us for a similar reason, or is the pull of every kind of landscape feature a random matter of simple sensual or sensorial appeal?  What would those of you say who love heading out to the sea rather than the mountains? For me, the sea is all about another kind of a trance, about losing sense of time and boundaries. It is about being literally, adrift. The mountains are all about being rooted. Present. Is it the same for some of you, and how is it different for others? Do keep the thoughts flowing…..

The joy ride of life. Why and how to keep the flow smooth.

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Today a friend said to me that she is convinced her life is a journey, because more and more she notices that it feels like this – that she is on a train where she has many people coming in and sitting next to her, and then moving on. The recent awareness she has also picked up about this coming and going, she said, is that she is now totally accepting of, and at ease with the changes. The new connections made, the old ones lost, some broken in pain, some forged deeper with love. She knows that whoever comes to her comes with a reason, and that particular interaction is meant to be, would lead to something. And therefore she is now more happily open to anything and everything coming her way. To letting go, to letting be, to being.

Isn’t that such an apt story for what our lives too, in essence are really like?

So also is travel. And not just the wander lust type, the great journey of my life type of travel. Even deliberate, conscious planned travel. The journeys we are sent on by the office. Or the sudden trip made to handle a family emergency. Or the fun family holiday trip gone wrong due to weather or airline mess up. Any and all travel. We may have a start date and place, and a itinerary, and a schedule of stops and destinations and a return date. Or we may leave it all open and free flowing. But then the journey and the road take over, and the more we are willing and open to this flow of the journey, the more fun we have on our travels. We don’t always know who we will meet, what we will encounter, whether we will see what we set out to, and sometimes, even, where or when we will reach.

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And if we start to be rigid and inflexible, fixated and unbending on the move, we will miss out on so much, and end up uncomfortable, on edge, fearful, anxious and miserable, and thoroughly dislike the journey and the sights and encounters enroute and never be happy with the destination, which will not seem worth it after all.

I say this from my own experience as well as that  of friends, and I feel the fun of a journey, as that of living a fulfilled, happy life comes from unshackling one’s heart and mind, the giving up of the need to be in control, to judge, to classify and categorize. It comes from a willingness to be, free and unbound in your heart, in your soul, in your essence.

Then the external, temporal ups and downs are just that, highs and dips of the road, a part of the journey, no more, no less.Passing features of the terrain, to be watched, and watched out for, to be dealt with, to be overcome, to be left behind…not the things that hold the ebb and flow of my life in their hands. I am much more than the parts of my journey.

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The Tale of the Keys I Forgot!

My head reeled and my stomach cramped as I sunk into a huge sense of frustration and helplessness. I could not believe this had happened! OMG… We were on our Holi-Easter break, driving uphill with some friends to our home in the hills, and had just come to a midway halt on the journey. As the car engine switched off, my husband casually remarked, “You have got the keys to the cottage, of course?”…And the realization hit me that I had Not ! I had not even thought of the keys during the preparations for the journey, leave alone bringing them with me .

So what were we to do? Apart from feeling like an utter fool who had goofed up big time, I just couldn’t think what was to be done. Did I rush back to Gurgaon (220 kms away) right then to get the keys, or did I call someone from there to rush out to us with the keys? Or did we take our chances and carry on and hope to find a way to get the lock opened or broken? In those early days, I did not have a regular caretaker on site and no one local at the cottage’s  location – totally off the tourist map, remote and rural-  had the keys to the cottage. Like I said, my head reeled …

Luckily for me, the others didn’t seem to think that any major problem had occurred. They were more amused than worried, and kept telling me  to chill, and that this was all no big deal and we would find a way. Back in the city I would have acted and felt exactly like them. But not when we were heading to a tiny village, off the main road networks, in the interiors of a reserved forest range in deep Himalaya. And that too during a festival when it is considered just fine to be drunk stiff and off from work for a few days at a stretch.

I  worried that the tiny remote Himalayan village where the cottage is located would have no key makers/ locksmiths to help us. The markets would be shut and locksmiths would be off work. I worried that we would have to break the lock open with brute force, damaging the brand new construction. I worried about the travel time we would take next day to get to Birdsong and that there would be no place for us to find shelter if we didn’t get the house open before nightfall. But with everyone around me making light of the situation,  after a bit even I started  feeling that a simple way would be found out of the situation. I even started smiling shakily when others joked about the adventure we would have camping out under the stars at night if nothing worked to open the door before nightfall.

Next morning we started on our ride to the cottage from the camp, some 160 kms away, in high spirits, intending to look out for a locksmith on the way in the little towns we would be crossing, and to ask him to come along with us to our destination. At about 100 kms along the NH 58 we were at the junction town of Rudraprayag, a nondescript place made infamous nearly a century ago by its man eating leopard and his nemesis, Jim Corbett. All we found noteworthy here was the turbulent confluence of the Mandakini and the Alaknanda as they rush down from their source glaciers to meet more sister rivers, to ultimately form the Ganga.

This was our last main town on the route, after which we would drive 50 or so kms through thick forests and high mountains and mind-blowing views of endless ranges, snow peaks and deepest, widest valleys but not even the smallest of towns. So this had to be our best chance for a key maker, and we hoped to find one and take him home with us.

So we started asking at the market place, and the first few shopkeepers said there was no one like that in town. The little mountain town was was still somnolent after Holi. When we saw some police constables we thought ourselves lucky- they would surely know of a locksmith! So we asked them, and yes, they did know of one!!  “Yes, there is a Sardarji (Sikh) chabiwala (key maker) and he roams the market on his bicycle. But I haven’t seen him around today. He generally also sits under that huge Pipal tree “.

We went up and down on that market lane, turning our car with great difficulty on that narrow one-way road, with permission of the policeman, and while many other shopkeepers confirmed the existence of said Sardarji, there seemed to be no sign of him that day. Then one shopkeeper mentioned that he actually was an itinerant, and had a room booked for him at a local lodge, where he stayed when he was in town. So off we went to look for the lodge, and traced this elusive man’s phone number from the lodge guest register. We rang up the number, and the man picked up our call, confirming that yes, he was the key maker, Gurmeet Singh and while he could certainly help us had he been around, he was right now home away in Dehradun a 100 kms away, and not coming back for another couple of days. When he did return to his work in Rudraprayag, he would call us to check if we still needed his services. And meanwhile, he helpfully suggested, if it was just a simple door, could we not try just forcing the locks with the help of a few basic tools? The villagers did it all the time, didn’t we know that?

I was now even more than ever worried. What would we do? My heart could not accept breaking the lock of  the newly made dream home. And what would we do after breaking the lock? Spend the night in a remote forest area without a decent bolt to keep the door in place? When we have all sorts of wild animals prowling around and their night calls audible to our ears? I would mange it, having spent nights in a tent in the same area, but what of my very urban, city slicker guests?

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In desperation, I called a neighbor in the village, and explained my predicament to him. He sounded nonchalant and said he would take care of things. We reached the cottage and all seemed quiet. No caretaker, no neighbor. No sign that anyone had tried doing anything to get the door opened. Our guests ooh-ed and aah-ed about how pretty everything was. And then they wanted to use the wash room. And there was no way to get in. I held the handle of the door helplessly and moved the lever down, expecting resistance. Instead, the handle moved down and the door swung in and opened. We all gasped in surprise, and with perfect timing, while we were still confused, our caretaker and neighbor walked in. It seems on hearing of the problem, my neighbor had called the caretaker and between them, they had fabricated a makeshift key. Somehow they had managed to open the lock without damaging the door. And then had gone off to have a cup of tea. And that is how we found an open and undamaged home. The door even shut properly and could be bolted for the night.

They know too well the importance of a safe door that shuts properly at night in these parts. For reasons quite different from those we lock ourselves into our homes, back in the city, even in broad daylight.

My guests of course only felt more sure that I was a worrier. That I had made a fuss when there was no issue at all. They held fast to their stand even when that same night they actually heard the leopard. I wonder if they would have felt differently when the main door was swinging open in the night wind and the leopard was heard growling in the forest cluster on the hillside across the cottage? But I am so glad we didn’t have to find out.

Honest Tales from the Hills – A bond of kindness and truth

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Now that the list of the World’s Most Honest Places is out,  and Mumbai ranked an admirable No. 2 in it, of course a debate has ensued as to whether other places in India can ever share the same glory as Mumbai.

The list makers tell us that the results were arrived at after carrying out the ‘”Wallet Test” to see how often a dropped wallet was returned/ attempted to be returned to its owner. While I am happy for all those ‘lost and found wallets’ and for Mumbai, I do know that I once lost a bunch of very important office papers on the suburban train in Mumbai and never got them back 😦 Wish they were doing these lists then- perhaps my papers would have been treated with more respect. Anyway, that is besides the point, really, and not the reason for writing this piece at all. Its the idea of returning things to their owners – connecting them back, as it were, that touches a chord with me, as I am sure it does with eveyone, including the folks who designed the survey that got us this list.

So today I want to share two stories of honest to goodness kindness of near strangers to me, because of which I too was re-united with things I had lost or left behind by mistake.

In December 2006, just about a year after buying the plot of land where Birdsong & Beyond now stands, we went on a road trip through north Garhwal, touring in a sort of circle around the Birdsong location as its sort of centre. We had another friend and his family with us , and it was a great long trip with lots of lesser explored places to visit. The vehicle we rode was new, the route largely unexplored, the drives long and full of discoveries at every turn. The cold crisp air, the clear sharp winter sun and the morning mists all added to the enjoyment and thrill of the journey.

One of the early stops was the Mandakini Magpie Birding Camp, a timely discovery on the banks of the Madakini river in a one tea shop village named Kakragaad. This is a place just about a couple of hours downstream from the base point of the trek to Kedarnath shrine, and there is a birding camp there run by an expert local birder, Shri Yashpal Negi (Negi Ji to all). I had found references to him on the Delhi Bird pages on the net and was excited and curious to explore what he was doing, as birding was a budding passion I was engaging with, and Negi Ji happened to be located practically in our backyard.

Negi Ji turned out to be an absolute find, and we had the most thrilling explorations with him. He is an excellent birder and guide with an immense range of knowledge and an uncanny knack to spot and identify birds out of thin air or dense foliage as the case may be. He is also very much the storyteller, sharing captivating nuggets on the local natural history, and local heritage. It was all a unique experience , more so perhaps because we had no idea what we were in for.

We had anticipated that the place and arrangements would be simple and minimalistic, and we had overcompensated to an extreme degree- having packed every possible supply into the car ! Sleeping bags, towels, flasks for hot water, food supplies…we were an army on the move. However, things were not so dire on the ground and we did get warm clean quilts and fluffy white towels to use. And while the washrooms were draughty and cold, the food was warm, fresh and somewhat exotic in being rather different to our usual fare. To accomodate more guests in the peak birding times, Negi Ji had put up two tents on the grounds and the younger children in our party decided to make a tent their sleeping place, and use our sleeping bags rather than the beds laid out, to make the experience even more camp like.

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From Negi Ji’s place we went on to Chopta Meadows, and attempted the Tunganath temple climb on New Year’s eve. The shepherds who graze their sheep and goats here on the lush spring and summer grass were all gone, leaving behind their ancient stacked stone shelters  available for interepid trekkers to camp around. There were parties of locals here and there, with their mobile kitchens and rations trailing into the forests and wilderness all through the day, all around Chopta Meadows and in the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary’s surrounding areas.

Anyway, to move on, in a few more days we we were on the return leg of the trip, from Auli to Rishikesh. While counting the luggage in the boot at Auli, it semd to us there was something missing, since the boot just looked so much more spacious than before. A quick review revealed that 3 sleeping bags were missing! A rushed check of the hotel room showed up nothing, and then it hit us that the sleeping bags were last used at Negi ji’s place only. There being no signal on the mobile phones, and the hotel phones being down due to a snow storm in the making, we drove off,  and called Negi Ji from the first PCO we came to and asked about the sleeping bags. Negi Ji said he had been desperate to hear from us… He had found the sleping bags in the tent after he went to ready them for other guests once we left, and had been so worried as he could not get us on the phone. He was thinking of getting hold of someone going down to Delhi and sending the bags with them to our address as a last resort, but it was difficult to find people travelling to Delhi in those parts!

So now that he had spoken to us and knew our plans, he offered a most generous and kind suggestion to get the bags to us. Our route to Rishikesh would bring us to Rudraprayag on the National Highway, from where the road to Kakraagad branched off. He would meet us there and give us our stuff. This meeting point was more than an hour’s journey by local bus from his home, and he offered to do it just so simply for us! His logic for not letting us take the detour and come pick the bags was that it would add hours to our travel time.

Needless to say we were totally floored by this wise, pragmatic and kind gesture of his. In hindsight, I realise how important it is in those areas to stick to tavel time estimates, keep mindful of the weather and to drive within daylight hours as far as possible. By offering to bring the stuff to us, he was not only returning our things to us, but also ensuring our journey stayed safe and as short as necessary.

A lot has changed in those hills since 2007 and I have been travelling there every few months in the last 3 years. I am very familiar and at home in these mountains and know a lot more of the locals. The Birdsong Cottage is now a reality and in in April 3013 we again had a wonderful trip up there with friends, combined with an overnite camp and trek to Deoariyatal lake. Located in the mountains just opposite the Chopta and Tunganath slopes, just off the Kedarnath- Gopeshwar highway that runs through the Kedarnath Musk Dear Sanctuary, this is an alpine lake in the middle of a forest, where the forest gives way to gently sloping alpine meadows that end into a bowl like depression on a mountain top, and in this depression sits the mirror lake. It is a sight that simply takes your breath away, leaving you grappling, a bit dazed, to take in all the beauty and the stillness around you .

There is no settlement here or buildings save two forest officials’ cabins there, and alpine camping tents are the only accomodation for the night. Its an amazingly well managed, clean and well protected site, with stunning snow views, teeming wildlife and birds and flowering trees of every hue. At Deaoriyatal I found myself wanting to be for ever outdoors, connecting with the tremendous presence of the universe every single moment. Even taking a break to eat or drink or go to the wahroom was a tough call to take – its that hard to break away from the spell of nature’s majestic and magical presence there.

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Anyway, we could not linger in this Shangri La forever as we had a time bound plan….so off we were again by mid morning,  trekking back downhill to the base point at Saari, in the glare of a noon day sun of the high altitudes. On the way down from our trek, at the base point, I felt a bit dehydrated and dizzy so took a time out from the group while they had tea at a local dhabha point and then went off settling the children and the luggage in the car. Meanwhile I took a 5 minute shut eye and a long drink of ice cold water, and then went off to wash my face. When I returned the car engine was running and the others were waiting for me to join them. I got in to the car and we started the drive back to Birdsong.

It was afternoon already and we had delayed so much at the lake, mesmerized by its beauty and peace, that we had totally ignored the the day’s timetable. Changing the planned lunch at Birdsong to dinner was no big deal in comparison, just a matter of a phone call back home. So we made our way down hill and reached the Kedarnath highway along the Mandakini river. By now all of us were pretty much starving and looking for a lunch break. The GMVN rest-house on the banks of the river at Syalsaur was our halt for a late late lunch and as soon as I started to step put of the car my head reeled again – this time not with dehydration but with the knowledge that in my confusion at Saari, I had forgotten to pick up my camera bag, and personal bag with my wallet etc…and nor had I asked the others to, and nor had they thought of it!!!

I was in a panic now, thinking of my cash heavy wallet, all my IDs and credit cards, ATM cards, and my precious precious camera gone for ever …or at least in grave danger of being lost to me….when calmer sense prevailed and I called our trek guide Raghubir. He was not at the tea shop where we had stopped but promised to go check immediately and call back. Soon he was back on the phone to us, saying the tea shop owner had noticed the bags and kept them aside safely. Now he was watching over them for us and where were we and was it possible for us to come take them, and when would be reach the place?

We told him our location, about 50 kms downhill of Saari and said we would start immediately, but if there was someone he knew in the village coming down was it  possible to send the stuff with them? When Raghubir realized where we were, he immediately told us not to make the trip to Saari, telling us that he would find a way out and call us back. Within 5 minutes he was back, informing us that he had found a relative’s motorbike and was coming down with a friend to personally hand over our valuables to us! We were just dumbstruck. These guys would ride down 50 kms and then ride back 50 kms to prevent us from doing the same, as it was safer and more practical for them to do it than for us!!!  And within less than an hour, Raghubir was there, at the rest-house, handing over my things to me and being so gracious and sweet and kind….. And on top of that, he refused to let us pay for the fuel , saying it was no big deal, anyone would have done the same and so on. And mind you, these are people who do not really have decent sums of cash to even meet their daily needs, leave alone spare cash to run uncalled for errands of kindness for strangers.

So when I read about the “Wallet Test” and the honest places ranking, my mind goes back to those panicked moments when I realized we had left our stuff behind and then the sense of enormous relief and gratitude toward the men who personally made sure they came and returned our things to us, wherever we were.

Coming into being. The Birdsong Cottage story. Part 3

Rites of Passage- To creating Birdsong Cottage

Bhoomi Pujan. The prayer before very first strike of the workman’s tools on the ground to make a building. In our part of the world no home or workplace or any building would ever be deemed ‘sanctioned’ to exist by the forces of nature and by something even beyond nature without the Bhumi Pujan. I had always found this to be a bit of an empty robotic ritual, disconnected from its essence in practice, though it is a strong and inescapable part of life all around me. Even foreigners who work in India have presided over ot at least been to one Bhumi Pujan, no matter how they personally felt about it.

When work started on site for Birdsong, my local Gurgaon civil contractor was sent to manage the local labor. The first thing the crew asked him about was when and how was the Bhumi Pujan to be performed. He asked me for directions. I told him to arrange for it locally, with the village priest. Interestingly, the site supervisor is originally a Bihari Muslim. He and the locals got together to have the ceremony carried out.

So, yes, we did have a Bhumi Pujan, conducted by a local priest. But this was done more for the peace of mind of the crew working the land. But preparing for the ceremony made me think of performing my own ritual too, a rite of passage for my dream taking material shape in mud and stone and wood and mortar. I wanted to signify this step with something that would speak of my underlying intentions and hopes with this home. I wondered how to put my feeling and wishes into action within the structure of a conventional, traditional Bhumi Pujan ceremony .

One of my friends suggested I speak to our common friend and mentor-guide. I called Nithya in Pune. He well understood my dilemma, and asked me to hold clear in my mind my vision and hopes for the home, and then helped me further crystallise my intentions. Thus I was able to work out a vision for what this home in the hills was all about, what it represented to me, why I wished to create it and what I saw as its future and our relationship with it, and its relationship to the place,the local life and people, to the people who I hoped would visit there. These were the ideas to be affirmed, set as intentions, and celebrated in our Bhumi Pujan Ceremony. If one wished, Nithya suggested, one could further relate them to specific attributes of specific deities, and bring in invocations to those deities in the priest’s traditional prayers. I asked the priest if he would invoke the deities as per our choice and he said yes, he would even invoke the special thoughts we wished to invoke. So we did go ahead with the Bhumi Pujan, done our way with a syncretic, quirky and personal twist.

To give you a simplified sense of what I mean, we expressed the intention of a rich, abundant life at Birdsong and around it through the invocation to Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity and plenty. A wish for it to be a place of learning, discovery, exploration, self knowledge and connection was symbolized through invoking the Saraswati, and so on.

Rites of passage are a familiar part of village life.  Everybody understands their meaning and is deeply connected to them. Come to think of it, most situations in these areas are rites of passage, some cyclical and patterned, others bit less certain and fraught with tension. Having familiar, understood rituals to see you through them make the transitions that much smoother. What it also may lead to, of course, is a difficult time when it comes to innovation and adapting to a fast changing world that is now definitely approaching these remote areas at a  fast pace. Customising my own rites of Bhumi Pujan gave me a chance to appreciate the value of ritual as well as the need to allow for a change in its expression.

Meanwhile, the ceremony was over and the priest symbolically hit the first blow on the field, after which the workers took over. Digging started for the retaining walls, to bolster the edge of the plot. The old retaining wall was demolished, and a new reinforced stone wall started coming up in its place. Those were heady and exciting days for me, and for my little site team. Everyday we would catch up on the progress- how many feet were dug, how was the pace of work, how was the weather, what were the ground conditions, how many more days….the hardworking and tough digging crew from Nepal was efficient and fast and we were pretty soon ready for the next big thing, the foundation of the cottage.

News from Birdsong & Beyond

Its been a long time since I wrote here, and for many reasons. The main one being that I was away at Birdsong without my laptop.

The biggest discovery for me these last 2 weeks has  been the large number of responses evoked by a call for summer internship at Birdsong & Beyond. I asked friends in the field of Architecture and Planning to help spread the word, and within days the applications and Resumes started pouring in. Facebook and the good old College Notice Board had a big role to play, as also the personal influence of the friends who spread the word originally. Finally we had 3 students staying in the village for over 2 months, and we all ended up making new connections and discoveries along the way. About old pilgrim routes, lost recipes, local animals and plants, house building styles, geology, ourselves, village folks and so much more.

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Another encounter and discovery centres around the beautiful bride pictured above. It is an encounter which typifies what big city folks will find to be a ‘lack of privacy’ and disregard of  ‘personal space’. What it really comes from is a rather distinct sense of ‘being at home and familiar’ with all around them that Indian villagers live with, when they live in their village. Where community is clearer and stronger, and intertwined with every aspect of life.

A nearby homestead was hosting a son’s wedding and we were invited of course, with a band of village boys delivering the card and asking us to definitely come for the ‘baraat ‘and other ceremonies. The day after a night of song, dance, revelry and rituals, to our surprise we discovered that the bride, with her old and new relatives, was at our door! She and her entourage had come by to meet the city folks who had opted to live amongst the villagers. The bride was a friendly girl, and she happily posed for pictures with her camera wielding relatives in all our rooms, and with us, and our guests, who were still semi asleep and not at all prepared for wedding album pictures.

The visits didn’t end with the bridal procession. A local school teacher brought his 2 colleagues from nearby schools and colleges to show them the cottage.  They had always seen our place from far, from the road on the downhill side of the valley and wondered about it.

So far, all was good and friendly, but there was something not so pleasant too. A wandering sadhu sauntered in to our verandah one morning. His persistent knocking was unwelcome as was he, but I opened the door and went to deal with him. The usual exchange of blessings and demands for alms followed, after which whatever I offered was deemed too unworthy by him- to be exact, worse than human refuse, literally. Disgusted by him, I unleashed some tough words of my own to send him off and I am sure glad he scuttled off when he did. Both for his sake and mine.

Then there were the various village youngsters who came to just talk, about their life, their families, their hopes and challenges. And the lack of opportunities in front of them. Apart from the lack of career choices and windows to the world, which we do acknowledge and know of, it is  specially on the personal front that the lack of growth and exposure was a discovery to me. Caught in the crossroads of tradition and modernity and a whole lot of change that they can’t control, the young are restless and hungry for a chance at a bright future.

In terms of  social mixing as youngsters, boys and girls find themselves on Facebook,  a magical, exciting world without known signposts to negotiate. Messages from far-off media make them feel helpless and hopeful at the same time. Neither the old certainties hold true or deliver well, and neither the new freedoms and ideas lead to the promised happy endings.

Most are just confused and frustrated and have little by way of a sounding board, understanding or guidance. They are all rather friendly and warm hearted and open to learning, open to knowing, but also hemmed in by tradition, by taboos and fears of the unknown. There is a sense of helplessness, of being in a lost and forgotten world, of not being important in the scheme of things of the wider world. What would it take to open a window to the wider world for them that permits an easy movement between their world as it is, and the wider world out there? I am sure this question will be part of the driver for our future work in the region.

There are winds of change of a more progressive kind too, and this ‘off the map’ place is also getting embedded in the political map of Local Self Governance as I type this. The cluster of villages around us has just been formed into a “Nagar Panchayat” or rural council, and the first Chairperson elected. She happens to be our neighbor and it’s amazing to see the transformation this development has brought to the entire family.

Though the lady herself is a more of a figurehead or rubber stamp office bearer, who had to be nominated for the ‘reserved for women only’ seat, she is making efforts on various fronts to fit into the role. The kids are teaching her how to say her speeches, the husband wants me to teach her some social graces, she herself is looking to buy nice, formal cotton sarees to wear to office where she has to sit with officials of the government and so on…she also now says all the farm and animal work is too much to handle, how can she do all this and be expected to use her head to learn new stuff for the office.

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With or without wheels…..some of us showing the way.

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While driving to the bank a couple of days ago, I saw a familiar figure on the curbside, walking by with a very leisurely, ambling sort of demeanor. I felt pretty sure it was my architect friend Sanjay Prakash, who I had not met for a rather long time. This person seemed leaner, and very relaxed. I had passed him in a hurry so I thought of calling Sanjay to ask him if indeed it was him I had seen, and where was he headed to. I was so glad I called him, because not only was it really him that I had seen, and now I had got a chance to catch up with him after a fir bit on phone, it also turned out that reason he was there on the roadside was that he was now a Car Free person by choice.

It seems when his last car got too worn out to be road worthy any more, he decided not to go for another car at all. It was a thought he had toyed with often, over the years, having been a keen cycle commuter in his younger days (he is now past 50) and now at last he felt he was ready to put this thoughts into practice again.

So now Sanjay commutes partly by foot, partly by public transport and  partly by the occasional car-lift courtesy friends, clients and relatives. It is a potentially high impact lifestyle choice and one I highly respect and endorse.  It has been 5 months since Sanjay has gone Car Free, and he has many insights to share. He is happy and enjoying this change, just as he enjoyed being a cyclist commuter early in his career. Those days, his commute was short one, and he was the proud owner of 2 rather snazzy cycles. Then came a couple of close brushes with the DTC buses, and marriage, and he chose to keep a car instead. Then the commuting also got longer, and for many years Sanjay was like the rest of us, driving to work, thinking perhaps some day maybe the traffic mess will be better and  like some of us, also thinking, maybe he would give up his car…and so on.

These days, Sanjay tells me, he feels quite independent and empowered, being Car Free again. He is realizing he can cope with his commuting need quite well, minus car ownership and he is benefiting financially and health wise too . On the other hand, the physical challenges for a walker in the city of Gurgaon, or Delhi or most Indian cities are seriously serious. The lack of suitable footpaths, and the utter disregard to the needs of walkers in road design and management of traffic flow are the top drawbacks. This leads to rather a hard time for a walker to safely and comfortably manage their commute. Sanjay for example finds that the road dividers are made like fort walls to be breached, being rather too high. But then, he reasons, they have been made too high to ensure that motorists stay on the right side, by not just by the presence of a divider as a sign, but by their presence as a physical barrier, that can’t be breached !

As of now Sanjay plans to carry through with his plans through summer too, with the help of a big thick umbrella. His asthma and wheezing have not been affected for the worse, and he feels his resistance and adjustment to the pollution is also better. He was also told by another friend that certain medical studies have shown that the cardio-vascular benefits  of walking like this overall tend to nearly cancel out the ill-effects on one’s system of the pollution etc faced on the roads. As for going back to cycling, that is not on the agenda, since the infrastructure support for cyclists is even worse than for walkers. The safety aspect for cycling is a big deterrent and unless addressed speedily in all earnest, even the most ardent cyclists, sustainability supporters, and green living enthusiasts will not be able to really take it on much here even if they wish to.

It was an amazing piece of co-incidence that after speaking to Sanjay I came home and found a link in my email to a talk by Anvita Arora, Transport Design specialist. She heads a venture for promoting cycle friendly transport systems and road infrastructure in our cities, and works on a lot of projects to make public transport systems more user friendly right from the planning stage. And when I called Sanjay again for something I came to know that when I had seen him walking, he was in fact going for a meeting with Anvita! A walker architect on his way to meet a transport designer, all working together to make a difference. Power to them, and may their tribe increase !!