Who’s up for fresh mountain air and birdsong at this Uttarakhand homestay?
Birdsong & Beyond is off the beaten track and ideal for a secluded holiday
It is the view you notice first. The horizon awash with myriad hues of the afternoon sun interjected by steep snow-capped mountains. The crisp breeze, chirping birds, verdant greens, and wildflowers have you next, and before you know the fatigue of hours of travel has dissipated in the fresh mountain air. We’re at the very serene Birdsong & Beyond in Uttarakhand, run by the organic farmer and writer Kiran Chaturvedi.
About the homestay
Birdsong & Beyond stands inconspicuously in a small settlement of mountain homes in the rugged hills of the Himalayas. It is off the tourist trail, in a little village in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, known mostly as the birth place of the Chipko movement.
Surrounded by hills and jungles, the house is a mix of traditional architecture and contemporary décor. Spread over two floors, five bedrooms, a hall, a balcony and a terrace, the space is personal, comfortable, modern, and yet retains the rustic charm of a hill cottage. Here, you’ll see owner Kiran Chaturvedi’s personal touch everywhere—think cozy rugs and cushions, classics and novels, board games and art supplies and comfy chairs you can sink into.
The slanting rays of the morning sun illuminate every corner of this wood cabin; every room has huge windows that overlook the sun, the sky, and the hills. The ranges of Badrinath, Mansa Devi, Trishul, and Pindari, stand right across the meadow in the front yard. Endless birdsongs, crystal clear air, rustling forests, and glistening stars makes Birdsong & Beyond nothing short of a storybook escapade.
About the owner
Birdsong & Beyond is the culmination of a lifelong dream of sociologist, writer, and organic farmer, Kiran Chaturvedi. “Birdsong is your quintessential cabin in the hills that so many of us have grown up dreaming of.” Kiran tells us over a cup of coffee. “We are completely off the tourist trail and only a few like-minded wanderers looking for an offbeat location manage to find us,” she adds. Looking at her pine wood cabin with sun-kissed terrace, organic kitchen garden, and fully stocked pantry one cannot but agree with her.
The homestay offers fresh home-made meals prepared in-house using local ingredients. Most of the produce is sourced from the kitchen garden at Birdsong and adjoining farms. Mandua, or black millet, ferns and nettles, and local lentils like rajma, bhat ki daal are some ingredients used to create the simple yet satisfying spread. The specialty however is the mutton curry made by Jagat, the caretaker, with his secret sauce and spice mix, and the bhang-jeera, (cannabis seed) chutney with fern fritters. But of course if you prefer your eggs on toast, the kitchen is open to you to cook, only you may have to carry your own bread, for the supply comes only when the truck driver wants it to.
How to spend 48 hours around Birdsong & Beyond
“The best way to spend time at Birdsong is by doing nothing,” Kiran tells me. Watching the sky with the glistening snowcapped peaks, listening to the birds, exploring the tiny village is work enough, we think. But, given the strategic location of the home stay, there is much you can do and see from here.
The shorter, half-day trails include picnics to nearby places like the Valli village temple, and the Dukhtamba Devi trek. Sunsets are beautiful at Duthkhambha. The trek takes about an hour to leisurely walk up with stops and forty minutes or less to walk down. You can reach Valli with a 3kms drive from the homestay or alternatively a 1km walk on stone steps through terrace fields downhill.
The Nagnath Forest and a visit to Mohankhal Forest Department for an introduction to the rangers’ work is another fine option. You can chat with the ranger and his guards during a guided tour that includes explanations about the surrounding flora and fauna as well as a few animal sightings, if you’re lucky.
The choices for day long trips include a visit to the region’s highest peak Kartikswamy, home to the only Kartik temple in north India—uniquely situated on the peak of a cliff at over 10,000 feet—it is an experience of a lifetime. Driving down riverside to Mandakini for a picnic on its bank and the views of Kedarnath range, or into Chandnikhal village to check out old carved wooden homes and ancient stone temples are great options too. The place also serves as a base for camping at the meadows of Chopta and the peaks of Tunganath and Chandrashila, the Alpine lake at Devariyatal, Badrinath and Kedarnath. While you can eat at the many dhabas along the way that serve Maggi, buns, paranthas and tea, the homestay can pack a meal that includes parantha, sandwich, boiled eggs and fruits for your day trips.
Doubles from Rs3,000 excluding meals; Rs250 per meal per person.
How to reach:
Birdsong and Beyond is located in village Guniyala Khal, 2kms from the tehsil town of Pokhri Nagnath, in district Chamoli, Uttarakhand. 430 kms from Delhi, 210 kms from Rishikesh, into the forested rural mountain tops uphill from Rudraprayag. The area is also known as the hunting ground of the legendary Jim Corbett. You can reach there by car, bus, or cabs.
The October 2017 Book Report.
(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.
The Whole Shebang – Sticky Bits Of Being A Woman
By Lalit Iyer
Despite the somewhat misleading title, the book is really not about women in general, or even some women. It is a series of personal opinion pieces sorted into seventeen chapters on varied aspects of being Lalita Iyer, the woman. The author herself is at pains to point this out in the Prologue, which I would recommend as necessary first reading on picking up the book. Above all, it is a book for anyone interested in how a particular woman thinks of her life and herself.
This slim 142-page compendium based on earlier columns and writings, connects, soothes, provokes and preaches, and manages to feel mostly likeable and a just a little unsettling. There are the usual suspects- bitchy schoolgirls, teenage angst, breast longings, and infatuations based on nothing but a look…and then there are unconventional storylines playing tug of war with the standard issue memo on being a woman. There is frankness, wit, courage, confusion, confession and hope. And listicles in some chapters, with authorly gyaan and tips.
Claiming to be still figuring out “How to be a woman’, Lalita lays down her belief that “being a woman is a serious amount of admin.” And talks of the sense of things “left undone” and “checklists crawling beneath our epidermis, reminding us” of this. The rest of the book then unravels the author’s sense of being a work in progress through puberty to middle age, to be an independent person, in delightfully devilish detail.
Being pre-millennial, her recollections of childhood and youth bring to life times and images we have almost archived into non-existence, like the compulsory chemise worn under the white school uniform, wax-coated paper packed Parle-G, mixed tapes as courtship, and Ovaltine. A serial job changer, a science-y working as a journalist and writer, a woman who married later than most, and became a mother at almost forty, and is now at forty nine a single mother to her son, Lalita’s stories bring an unusual lens to the common and uncommon issues of her and every woman’s life.
I for one could not see the merit of so many pages devoted to getting one’s period, the travails with ill-fitting bras and the cruelty of thongs. But some of these, along with body size and image are topics I see many women of all ages obsess about almost forever. In Lalita’s blunt and vivid telling of these issues lies a comment on the tyranny of conflicting forces acting on women, and the cinch women are in, ironically, all at once, of seductive fashion, modesty dictats and a deeply conditioned desire for approval.
“Every once in a while, I muster the courage to walk into a Mango or a Zara or a Promod and try on clothes which fit one part of my body but don’t fit another and I tell myself – I am totally out of proportion. What I don’t tell myself is that these clothes were made to squash me into someone else’s shape.”
In the personal stories and stern guidelines of sorts, many readers will recognize how they don’t take themselves seriously as a person; beyond the relationship they have to significant others in their life. And how ambivalent they are about owning their careers and especially about money matters. And how they lose themselves even in the role that is supposedly their identity- that of a mother, or a wife.
“Mother love was not enough for me to feel me. I needed more, and I went after it. That was the only way I could retain my selfhood. That’s the only way I want Re to remember me when I am gone. Not someone who lost herself in him.”
The Whole Shebang has a bold, specific and contemporary tonality to its slice of life writing. There is vulnerability and openness of voice and individuality of details that draws the reader in. With confessions and intelligent wit it also exudes hope and sisterhood, and give wings to the reader’s imagination. The reader is likely to be comforted with a realization that she is not alone in all that confuses and confounds her. Someone else has been there too, and lived to tell the tale.
The most enjoyable bits of reading this book for me were the chapters on love, marriage, money, friends, the in-laws and the future. It is here I felt the writing acquired the most natural, most nuanced richness and depth. With engrossing self-deprecation and eyes open wide practicality Lalita reflects on the changes in her own thinking and the changing ways of the dating game. The affliction of imagining love stories is examined threadbare. The Idea of self-love is embraced.
“We are constantly examining our imaginary love stories in our heads – constructing and deconstructing scenarios – decoding what he said to reveal what he really meant, looking for signs, seeing signs while none exist: in text messages, whatsapps, Facebook, Instagram, and in all avatars in which it is humanly possible for one person to exist.”
I also specially liked the fact that topics like money, work, and motherhood are covered in a matter of fact way, without getting heavy handed or frivolous. Like in these lines from “Planning for retirement’.
“You need to have a nest egg both as assets and savings for retirement irrespective of a spouse or lack thereof or whether your parents are going to leave you a nice inheritance. … You will be surprised how few women factor this in. I have already budgeted for a halfway house with my friends when I am sixty. I don’t believe children should be treated as old-age insurance.”
Given the book’s chapters covers a wide span of time in a woman’s life it can grow along with the reader’s experience, and be a sounding board for the long haul, as well a companion for a brief fling. Rather like a combination shampoo-conditioner, unlike the dichotomous category of men someone put across to the author – that of being either a shampoo or a conditioner. (The shampoo is meant to leave, the conditioner meant to stay….read the book to know moreJ)
“When relationships are depleting, it’s friendships we turn to for replenishment, connection, a shared sensibility and laughs. Our women friends help us raise the bar; we look up to our friends more often and in more ways than we think. … How many times have you told a female friend, “You know, I should have so married you!”
The Whole Shebang is just one such friend every woman could commune with at least once.
Don’t Listen To Those Who Say Travelling With Kids Is Stressful – Mindful Travelling
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.
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
Our first visit was over. We – our family of four – had seen the place, and taken a call. This was to be my Himalayan adventure, the home in the hills I always dreamt of. I did have reservations and goosebumps about its remote location and how very back of beyond the place seemed to be, almost suspended in those really high ridges. But these same features also made it the perfect project for my romantic notion of a getaway. And so I took on the project, with zero idea of how I would go about it, what was going to be needed in terms of resources of money, time, learning, and anything else. All I knew was that for me this was a labor of love, a creative journey that engaged my mind, soul, heart and body in so many ways.
The official paper work was carried out over the next few months, the registry signed and the deal sealed. And thus I became a ‘khashtakar’ or rural land owning farmer in an interior village of Uttarkhand. This was all across the years 2007-2008.
Things have a way of working out so different from what you plan, as far as the details go. For the past few years we had scoured Kumaon, agreed to big ticket deals there, and then not been able to seal the deal for some reason or other. Then out of the blue, without our looking for it, without our even being aware of its existence or location, an offer of land sale in a remote, unknown location came our way and some curious adventurer gene in us made us go check it out. And so it all fell in place. From my childhood dream of a mountain cottage to an official government land deed for a pretty little parcel of Himalayan soil in my name.
Then came the actual work on the ground, before which there was all the exciting brainstorming, learning, ideating and creating – a vision for the cottage in our minds and on paper. We went from working with lego to woodblocks to line drawing to drawing layers and layers on site photographs….trying to get that one perfect fit with our thoughts, our dreams…..then fitting it all with the practical situation on the ground, the size of the plot, the cut of the terraces, the direction of the sun, wind and the snow views.
We read, we looked at pictures, we sketched our thoughts, our fantasies, we visited a couple of other city folks’ dream cottages to see how we felt about them, and what the owners felt and had learnt over time living with their dreams, and delved deep into what inspired us. It was an exciting, creative, alive few months, so full of promise and discovery and possibilities. It was also a time of intense learning, of condensing, of choosing, of prioritizing, of letting go.
By the end of it all , when we had the printed layouts in hand, almost another year had passed and we were in early 2010. The project was coming into shape slowly and along with it, many new ideas and thoughts were stirring in my mind….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.