Monday, September 21, 2009

No Alcohol Permitted

On our way to Gangotri, I witnessed something that I haven’t still fully come to terms with.

After having found that traveling by buses in these mountainous roads was too perilous, we were traveling from Uttarkashi to Gangotri in a shared Jeep. Locals would wave the vehicle to a stop and squeeze in no matter how jam-packed we were. They’d go for a few kilometers, pay the driver and get down.

A priest who worked at the Ganga temple up at Gangotri traveled with us right from Uttarkashi. He had a small two-inch curly ponytail in his hair. He was really nice to us, suggesting places to sit in the Jeep where we might be comfortable and the fare we should pay. He said that his family lived in Uttarkashi, the district headquarters, where his children went to school. He lived and worked up at the temple in Gangotri, and came down to visit his family when he could.

It was slow going and at the pace we were traveling it would take us close to 4 hours to travel the 80 kilometers. When we reached Harsil, a town that was 18 kms away from our destination the priest spoke up.

Roko, gaadi roko. Jinhone bhi pee rakha hai, wo uthar jao. Kal aana." ("Stop the Jeep. All those of who have consumed alcohol, get down right here. Come tomorrow.")

I hadn’t realized that some of my fellow passengers had consumed alcohol. But somehow, the priest had known. To my surprise, two men obediently got down. They were being ejected from the vehicle early but were asked to pay the full fare.

I had heard that many of the dhams (towns that are sacred to the Hindus) were alcohol-and-meat free. In Haridwar, for example, no shop will serve alcohol and no restaurant would serve meat.

Gujarat was a so-called “dry state” but it was often said in wink-wink tone. So I was surprised that in India with its very adaptable philosophy of sab kuch chalta hai (anything goes ) the people in our Jeep were taking the prohibition extremely literally. It wasn’t as if these two people were carrying liquor into the town. It was just that they had consumed some before getting on the vehicle.

But that was affront enough. The priest wasn’t done yet.
Kyon Aisa karte ho? Sharam Aani chahiye.” (Why do you do this? You should be ashamed.)

I was unprepared for this high handedness, and even more surprised at the docility with which the two men accepted what was meted out. They even smiled sheepishly, a tacit acceptance of their guilt.

Eighteen kilometers before their destination, we simply discarded them by the side of the road so that could spend the night somewhere sobering up. Thus free of inebriated heathens who would have polluted the holy dham, and with a little more sitting room for the rest of us, our now-virtuous Jeep lumbered upwards, towards Gangotri.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Let me carry that for you"

I used to think that Sherpas were only there to help mountaineering expeditions. I used to think that in Garhwal, a district that prided itself on literacy, all young boys would be going to school. And I used to hope that things don’t change too much in the tourist-friendly Himalayas.

We were walking to our hotel in Gangotri, getting ready to check out. Just as we reached the hotel, I felt a tap at my knee. A small boy asked, “Kuch samaan utanekho hai Kya?”. (“Do you have anything that needs carrying?”)

All across this part of the Himalayas, Sherpa porters can be seen. They are men who carry a cord of rope with a leather strap in the middle with them wherever they go. The strap goes over their forehead as they bear heavy loads and shuffle along slowly. They can be seen lounging in clusters while they wait for jobs. Short, thin muscular men, wearing Nepali caps and smoking beedis, their easy smiles revealing rotting teeth.

Sometimes, it seems that the reason to travel is not to gaze at pretty snow-clad mountains but to observe the things that aren’t mentioned much.

I saw these human porters carrying everything on their backs. Sets of bricks, bags of cement, boxes of merchandise and worst of all, red cooking gas cylinders. (Those cylinders are so heavy that even moving them a few inches is difficult.) Apparently the going rate for one load was Rs 30 (US $0.60).

And in Yamunotri, these Sherpa porters carry visitors in a basket strapped to their backs for a distance of 6 kilometers uphill – a task that takes 2 to 3 hours for which they earn Rs 200 (US$4.00). These porters weren't doing too well.

And now here was a little boy, definitely not yet ten years old, who was offering to carry my bags. He knew when the check out time at the hotel was, and had showed up right outside the reception area. Instinctively, I said no. We had just a small day pack with one change of clothes and 2 bottles of water. More important, how could I possibly let a boy who was half my height carry my bag for me?

I am always looking for simple explanations, but I could find none for why these Sherpa porters existed at all. Why have humans lugging loads when big lorries (trucks) and smaller tempos and bicycles are available for transporting goods? And in looking for pat answers, I guessed the only role models that the boy had must be porters themselves.

That boy lingered in my thoughts for a long time. He looked to be eight years old. He should have been in school. I felt bad about denying him some quick money. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said no so hastily. But then, I realized that I would be encouraging him. If I gave him money today, he would be back tomorrow to ask another visitor. What was easy money when you were little would soon become a way of life.

Much as I would love for things to remain the same, I hope the Sherpa porters find some other line of work. And I hope that truant boys start going back to school and don’t ever aspire to grow up to become Sherpa porters.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Keeping Warm By Faith Alone

It was really cold by the river in Gangotri. The glacier, from which the river issues is only a few kilometers away. Gangotri is the conventionally agreed upon source of the mighty Ganges river. Most of the visitors referred to the river only as Ganga Mata (Mother Ganga).

The water from Gangotri is revered by many. We wanted to carry some of it back with us and bought a small translucent jerry-can. At the riverbank I walked down the steps (called Ghats) to the river. The water was the color of milky tea and was flowing with great force. We had to always stay inside the chains that were installed all along the river so that the bathers didn’t get washed away.

As a mark of respect everyone removed their footwear before approaching the river. I carefully placed one leg in the frigid water, bent down and quickly filled a 1-liter water bottle and the small jerry-can. It only took a few seconds. But when I tried to walk back up the ghats, I realized that my foot and my hand were frozen stiff from the cold water. I had to repeatedly kick with my ankle and flex my fingers for several minutes to get them warmed with the circulation.

I had a new-found respect for the bathers all around me. They would so casually pour jugs of the freezing water on themselves. The elderly men would strip down to their shorts. Many were frail with their ribs visible. The women bathed fully clothed for the sake of modesty. These men and women, with no hesitation, repeatedly dipped their steel vessels into the frigid water and poured it on themselves.

It occurred to me that only way they were able to endure the bitter cold had to be their unshakable faith in their Ganga Mata -- that the river goddess would take care of everything.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Looking for books that capture a place

I am looking to read books in which the writer is able to capture the essence of a country or a city. These are travel books, but with a difference. Instead of moving to a set itinerary, the writer generally focuses on one region (or city or country) and brings it to life. The place (its people, their customs and their stories) creates the book.

Here are a few of the kind I am talking about:

Apples Are From Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins (Kazakhstan)
36 Views of Mt Fuji by Cathy Davidson (Japan)
Maximum City by Suketu Mehta (Bombay/Mumbai)
Hearing Birds Fly by Louisa Waugh (Western Mongolia)
Kowloon Tong by Paul Theroux (Hong Kong, fiction)
Alaska, Hawaii and several others by James Michener.

I am sure that there are dozens more. If you can think of any that you read and would like to recommend, please add them as comments below. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Lord Ganesha Has Left The Building

The noise of the drums makes it impossible for me to concentrate on “Maximum City” – Suketu Mehta’s book about Mumbai, which I was trying to read in our short-term lease apartment in Mumbai. It is past 9.30pm on a Thursday night, and I am getting angrier about these noise-makers who didn’t give a hoot about noise pollution. What if someone wanted to study for exams, or had a headache? The din is getting louder by the minute.

It then occurs to me that while I am trying to read about the city in the book, the real Mumbai is unfolding right below me. I know that the sounds are a part of the Ganesh festival which our apartment community is celebrating. I decide to go down to take a quick look. I would see what the commotion was about and be right back.

When I walk out and cross two buildings to where all the action is, I see that it is sheer bedlam. Scores of people are dancing in spasms. Behind these merrymakers, men are beating numerous drums the size of half barrels. It is a procession, and there is a truck in the back, bringing up the rear for the whole frenzied mass in front. Every few minutes some shouts “Ganpathi Bappa” and the crowd shouts back “Moriyaa” in chorus.

I had often heard about how passionately the Mumbaikars celebrated Ganesh Puja. But this is my first time in the city when the festival was going on.

The truck at the rear is a brown Eicher truck with a tarp cover. It is swaddled with banners that have pictures of Ganesha and says “Vasant Oscar Ganeshotsav.” The back is open and in it is our colony’s peach- and pink-colored Ganesha idol, over five foot tall and with four hands. There is a priest sitting next to the idol, doling out tiny white spheres of sugar as prasad to all. Tonight’s procession will end with the truck driving to some nearby body of water and a few men dropping off the idol for visarjan.

As I continue watching, I see that is an underlying logic behind this bedlam. There are a few men looking at their watches, whispering to the driver, motion the drummers to keep moving. There are 12 buildings in our complex, and there seems to be an allotted time in front of each building. The route has been pre-planned to cover all buildings and there is a time-table to be adhered to.

I go close to the drummers, who are all young men sweating profusely as they work their fat drum sticks. They are enjoying themselves, trying to show off to each other. When I get real close to them, I feel the air physically reverberate to their frenzied beat.

I get close to the dancers, and see that it isn’t the chaos I had taken it to be. Boys and girls and men and women are all dancing in separate groups. Even in the frenzy, they take care not to touch each other. I every group, there are natural dance leaders. Each time a new song comes on, they dance out move or two. Their steps and the way they move their hands looks ridiculous when they do it alone. But when a dozen others join in, it is quite pleasant to watch. Many of the dancers are dancing to the audience that is walking along, laughing at their own boldness.

Women of a certain age are the only ones who are dancing with utter abandon. They aren’t out to impress anyone. Older men aren’t dancing at all, they are walking along holding the hands of very young children.

In between two buildings, a man brings out what looks like a cake box from the truck. The drumming and the music stops. From the box, he rolls out a red chain of firecrackers. I pick up the discarded box and it says that it is 1000-wala, made in Sivakasi and the MRP is 450 Rupees. He makes sure that he has everyone’s attention and he lights it with a match. Each cracker in the chain goes off making a loud racket and lightning flashes. It is several feet long, but it lasts for all of fifteen seconds. 10 US Dollars in a quarter of a minute, or 30 Rupees for each second.

The music resumes. The next song is a tune commonly associated with snake charmers. Indians can easily recognize the tune. I see one young woman mime a flute with her two hands, thumbs and pinky fingers stretched. She sways like a snake charmer. Four other young women immediately fall to their knees, and bring their hands to their heads and make a fan. They become the hooded cobras, writhing to the snake charmers’ music. This is a dance move I haven’t seen before.

I get curious about where the other music is coming from. The percussion instruments are impossible to miss, but I just cannot figure out where the tune is coming from. I peer into the truck driver’s cabin and see just the driver and another guy sitting next to him with a bored expression.

And only when I practically put my head into the passenger side window do I see that he is the one playing the music. This man is belting out all the tunes on his electronic synthesizer. He is using a Casio keyboard (the label said SA-21) that is connected to the loudspeakers strung on front of the truck.

He plays one song after another, and when the crowd recognizes each one there is a roar of approval. Most of the songs sound familiar, but I can’t identify them because they are beyond my limited Hindi songs repertoire. The man plays the keyboards with one hand, the other hand resting on the window. He isn’t glancing at the keyboards at all. I can’t ever remember seeing anyone play with such nonchalance.

Many of the men bring out currency notes, which they then circle over the heads of a drummer and then hand it to them. At one point, a man lays a 100 Rupee note on the road and makes a come-and-get-it motion to the lead drummer. The drummer is up to the challenge. Without missing his beat, he walks up and down and measures steps. Then he comes running, places his huge drum on the ground, lies over it and lets the drum roll towards the note. At the right moment, he swoops down. When he rolls back, the 100 Rupee note is sticking to his sweaty cheek. He’s picked it up without using his hands, and the audience roars its approval.

The procession moves steadily from one building to the next. Those who have been dancing are sweating and thirsty and in front of each building they ask for water. The people in the buildings rush to bring them chilled bottles of water, eager to accumulate karma points by doing good.

Out of each building I see people come and line up towards the back of the truck. All of them remove their footwear and pray to the smiling Ganesha with folded hands, heads bowed down. A few reach out to the idol, clasping and beseeching with real fervor, as if wanting to wrest all the blessings they can get before Ganesha goes away. I recall that there was a time when I used to think that prayers get answered in proportion to the fervor with which one prayed. Though I am unable to share in their faith, this display of total faith moves me as it always does.

As the truck moves past each building, I observe children, who look to be anywhere from 7 to 10 years old, pushing the Eicher truck from the back with all their might as it leaves from the front of their building. They are doing their part in helping their beloved Ganesha get to his destination, to his visarjan. It will be a year before he is back. Surely, these boys and girls know that it is a geared vehicle and that the driver is the one who moves it forward. But they push anyway.

Seeing the people praying and the kids pushing the truck, it occurs to me that I have grown far too cynical over the years. I decide to accompany the procession for a couple more buildings before I bid my good-bye to the five-foot Ganesha.