The journalist and the contractor

When you are 32, looking back at your 21 year old version, what is the one thing you remember about yourself? Stupidity? Laziness? Being thinner? Well for me, the one trait that stands out most is Innocence. I quite remember how in the last decade innocence slowly escaped me (or is still escaping!). This story is about a time when I was quite innocent, some might say foolish.

This trip was a proper “rebel” act. It was summers of 4th year in college, most of the batch mates were graduating. Even after 4 yrs of college and trying different things like internship in Quality department of Hero Honda, trying my hands on Robotics, different courses in Psychology, reading activism Sociology by Ivan Illich, I was still lost in life. I had no idea what or why I was on Earth, let alone IIT. With nothing much to lose, I would engage myself in all kinds of random rebellious acts. One of these acts, was this trip to nowhere with nothing.

It was 2005, I was to go to a place called Mundoli, somewhere in Garhwal district, base camp for Roopkund trek. All I knew from a senior was that I should pass by these stations to reach Mundoli: Haldwani, Almora, Dewas. I was also told there would be plenty of public transport options available once I reach Haldwani or Kathgodam which is at the foothills of the Himalayas in Uttrakhand. I had no mobile, no camera, no reservations in any train/bus; just a piece of paper with names of towns written on it, 1700 bucks and IIT student card.

It is not possible to write about the entire journey here; it has been documented in a journal filling about 40 pages detailing each and every aspect of my trip. This post is about dialogues with a man I met on my way: The journalist in Gwaldam Guest House.

The journalist in Gwaldam Guest House

It was late afternoon; I was in a Sumo van, which carrier 8-10 passengers across towns. After 36 hours of journey from Kanpur to Lucknow to Haldwani to Almora, I was on my way to Dewas. Half awake, half sleepy, a young girl travelling alone, I guess I must have aroused some curiosity in the van. An elderly passenger asked me where I was going.

Dewas.

Koi rehta hai wahan? Kisse milne jaa rahi ho? (Whom are you going to meet there?)

Nahi, main wahan Garhwal Guest house mein rukungi.  (No, I am going to stay in the government guest house there.)

Surprise. Akele? (Alone?)

Haan, mujhe Mundoli tak jana hai. (Yes, I have to travel till Mundoli.)

Dewas kaise jaogi? (How will you reach Dewas?)

Pata nahi. (Not sure.)

Abhi to sham hone wali hai. Dewas mein guest house nadi paar hai. Pahunchte hue andhera ho jayega. (It is going to be dark soon and the guest house in Dewas is far away, not on the main road. It is will be quite late by the time you reach there.)

Hmmm. What’s the big deal?

A stop came, some passengers stepped out. I saw outside, it would be sunset soon. After some time he spoke again.

Meri maano to abhi dewas jaana theek nahi hoga. Yeh sumo Gwaldam tak jaa rahi hai, aaj wahin ruk jao. Kal subah nikalna Dewas ke liye. (If I can suggest you, it is not a great idea to go to Dewas so late in the evening. Stay in Gwaldam today and continue your journey in the morning.)

We reached Gwaldam, all the passengers were getting down. The elderly man again said that I should not continue any further today. It is not safe to travel in dark. He also introduced himself. He owned a chemist shop in the main bazaar, gave me his shop’s name and asked me to contact him in case of any kind of problem.  I was quite touched with his sound advice and offer to help. I decided to stay in Gwaldam.

The GMVN guest house was right on the main road. I got a room on the second floor. This was the most expensive expenditure in the journey so far, 200 bucks worth. The guest house seemed deserted. After freshening up, I went out to witness one of the most beautiful sunsets. I wish I had a camera. Gwaldam was an army base, sleepy and pretty town with almost no tourists. As the sky got darker, I went in to the dining hall. The hall was dimly lit but I could make out the benches and tables. There was a guy sitting on side of the table, I took the opposite side. The kitchen boy served us local food in thalis.  Ah! The taste of freshly cooked hot food at the end of a long journey!

The man and I, we started talking. At that time in life, prisoner in a campus of engineers and scientists, I was hungry to know more about the rest of the world, to meet people of different occupations. This guy turned out to be a journalist for Amar Ujala, a popular local daily. He was responsible for covering news in the entire region of around 100-150 kms.  I was quite excited to know about his work, how he found news, how he wrote articles, his team mates, etc. He wasn’t very open to disclose all this information, but still friendly to talk to. We finished dinner so he suggested:

Abhi itni jaldi to soyenge nahi, baatein karte hein.  (We won’t sleep so early in the night, let us talk more.)

Haan, theek hai. (Sure! Why not?)

Aapka room kaunsa hai? (What is your room number?)

I gave him my room number.

Mera room number x1 hai. Aap chalo mere room mein, wahin baith ker baatein bhi ker lenge aur TV bhi dekh lenge. (Mera room number x1 hai. Come to my room, we can talk and watch TV together.)

Okay, main aati hun thodi der mein. (Sure, I will come in a while.)

I thought about his proposal and felt that there was no reason for me to be suspicious. After all, he just wanted to talk. I would learn a thing or two about journalism. So I went in.

As I stepped in, he asked me close the door to not let mosquitoes in. I did that, without putting the latch on. He was half sitting, half lying on his bed, watching TV and drinking. I took the chair against the wall, few steps away from the bed. We started talking again. He didn’t offer me a drink.

He asked me a lot of questions about myself. Told me some of the news he cover such as deaths, robbery incidents. He had his connections in all the main towns of the area. If something happens, they inform him, give him the information on the commission. It sounded quite dull and boring. The topics ranged from personal stuff, like family, friends to work, studies. By now, the sleeplessness of last 36 hours was catching up with me. I might have looked tired to which he suggested, “You seem quite tired, why not rest on the bed.

This suggestion sounded dangerous to me. Even in campus, we make it a point to avoid sitting on boys’ beds in hostels. I sternly declined this offer, suggesting I will move to my room soon.

However, the conversation which followed next wasn’t something that I expected.

He told me how lonely his work gets, how sometimes he meets friends in guest houses and find ways to get over his loneliness.

I was listening uncomfortably, not knowing how to respond.

Then, he suggested that I can stay over in his room for the night.

Next moment, I stood up; quickly bidding him good night I stepped out of his room, came back to my room and secured it in.

I was quite scared at that point. I couldn’t believe what I had heard. Then it occurred to me, how naive I had been. Marching into his room at night, to “talk”! Giving him my room number. What if he comes to my room in the dead of the night? I would obviously not open the door. But there were hardly any people here to call for help. What if he forces himself in? How will I save myself? Though scared, I was too tired to stay awake.

Next morning I was up early, got early and took the first bus out of the town. I left before the journalist could catch me.

Many years later, now when I think about that night, I see quite an innocent, you might say stupid, girl in me. Going on a journey like that alone, getting friendly with a stranger, excited to know about different occupations, not suspecting anything while going into a strange man’s room, frank and open in my answers, unable to foresee where the conversation was going.

During that trip, I had another long conversation with a contractor who was in construction business. It was during the return journey from Mundoli to Kathogodam. By that time, I had spoken to a lot of new people: a farmer, a dhaba owner, the dormitory keeper, a college student from Delhi. I was better prepared now. The conversation with the contractor was a different experience than the one with the journalist. I weighed my answers well, withheld private intimate information, was neither entirely true nor false in my replies, only discussed neutral non-personal topics, held my ground and didn’t let the other person cross the line. I realized it depends on me how much liberty the other person can take with me.

During that ‘rebellious’ trip some of the innocence left making way for much required maturity.

Coffee Date with Rickshaw wala

Image credit: Mumbainet.com

It must have been one of those rarest occasions when Mumbai was drenched in pouring rains in the mid of December! This was my very first trip to the Bollywood-dream city. We grew up watching movies that had shots of Churchgate, Marine Drive, Juhu.  There were built up desires of spending time at Essel World and Water Kingdom from childhood. It wasn’t until now that I could manage a trip to Mumbai and every bone in my body was super excited. I was visiting a friend-cum-cousin who was studying in the prestigious IIT Powai. It was going to be the best trip of my life! I would do everything, visit Mumbai, meet cute boys of IITB, eat vada-pav!!

My train from Kanpur to Mumbai stopped at Andheri which was the nearest station to Powai. When I got down, the first thing I did was to search for a PCO. It was the year 2002, when we were deprived of any personal communication devices. There were no google maps, actually even Google was pretty much non-existent at that time. So after two-three attempts when I could finally connect with my cousin and when he gave me long and confusing instructions on how to reach his hostel room, while he would sit cosy watching s**t on his PC, I knew it was time to strip off some of the expectations from the trip.

Nonetheless, getting an auto outside the station was super easy and the driver knew very well where the campus was. I told him to take the route through Jogeshwari as suggested by my cousin (R). The auto guy seemed to think it wasn’t a great idea but nevertheless obliged me.

It had started to rain hard now. I had the blinds of the auto pulled down to save my luggage and myself from getting wet. There was not much I could see outside. The guy reiterated that going by Jogeshwari wasn’t a good decision. But I was firm and clear to follow the instructions given to me. No we must take that route only. He complied. Suddenly, it occurred to me, what if he doesn’t take me through that route. Or what if he doesn’t take me to Powai at all? What if he takes me to some random place outside the city, kidnaps me and then asks for a ransom. What are the chances that it would not happen? How do I validate that this wasn’t happening right now?! Doesn’t this happen all the time to young women as shown in TV serials and movies?

Suddenly, panic struck me. I asked him, bhaiya hum kahan hein? (Where are we?) He said some place’s name. But then how do I know he is not lying?! I asked him again, bhaiya hum Jogeshwari se hi jaa rahe hein na? (We are on the right route?) He said yes and then explained the route to me. This scared me further. In Delhi/Kanpur, if you cross-question the auto guy and if he is honest, he will get irritated by your questions. He will either ignore your question or give a curt reply. This guy here was so happily explaining me the entire route. What the heck! Something was bound to be wrong.

While contemplating the worse situation, like how I would jump out of the auto if required to, what all stuff in my luggage is precious to me and so on, I heard his voice again. He seemed to be asking me something.

Aap kahan se ho? (Where are you from?)

Kanpur se.

Oh hum bhi UP ke hein. (I am from the same province.)

Damn. While growing up in kidnapping and theft infected locality of Lucknow, the capital of UP, and while studying in molestation-capital of the country, Kanpur, another city in UP, I had sworn never ever to trust UP guys. Rains, luggage, random city and UP driver in private vehicle; this is the worst nightmare ever.

He seemed to be speaking again.

Hum yahan pe 4 saal se hein. Ghar gaon mein hai. [with some village name] Achcha nahi lagta yahan lekin kaam hai, paise chahiye. (I came here 4 years ago. My family is in the village. I don’t like it here, but work is here.)

Oh. This sounded genuine. Aapke ghar mein kaun kaun hai? (Who all are there in your family?)

Biwi, bachhe, maa baap, bhai. Bhai ko yahan bula rahe hein. (wife, kids, parents, brother. Brother will also come here)

Aap apne biwi bachhon ko kyun nahi bula lete? (Why don’t you call your wife and kids here?)

Kyunki yahan ghar nahi hai. Ek kamre mein rehte hein kai log. (I don’t have a home here. I live in a shared rented place.)

Aap chawl mein rehte hein? (Do you live in chawls?)

Nahi, jhopad patti [slums] mein aur gaon walon ke saath. (NO, I live in slums with other village men.)

Oh.

After this conversation, I was calmed down. This guy is a family person. He spoke again:

Itni baarish mein auto chalana risky hai. Shayad beech mein auto bhi ruk jaye. Kahin per thodi der ke liye ruk jaate hein, baarish kam hone tak. (It is risky to drive in such heavy rains. We should stop for a while and wait for it to get better. There is a chance that engines might fail us in the middle of the road.)

Whaaaaaaaaaat?! No way man! We were at, what is now the Jogeshwari Vikhroli link road, and in 2002 that area was completely barren. There was nothing on either sides of the road. Road was a sequence of potholes connected by gravel. In retrospect, I guess the guy was correct. We should have stopped. But to a 19 yr old, inexperienced, immature, non-travelled, over-imaginative girl that was a terrifying suggestion.

Nahi bhaiya, aap mat ruko. Mera bhai wait ker raha hai. Agar main nahi pahunchi to woh pareshaan ho jayega. (No please do not stop. My brother is waiting for me. He will be worried if I don’t reach on time.)

Yes, this was the right thing to say. This way the man would know that someone is tracking me and that he can’t cheat or harm me!

Theek hai, dekhte hein. (Okay, let us continue.)

Phew.

After a few silent moments, he started again.

Aapka bhai IIT mein hai? Padhta hai? (Your brother is studying in IIT?)

Haan. Main bhi IIT mein hun. Kanpur mein padhti hun. (Yes, he is. I am studying in IIT Kanpur.)

I could never let R take the credit of cracking IIT alone! I have to have some of it for me too!

Arre wah! Aap to bahut mehnti aur tej hogi? (Very nice! You must be smart and hard working!)

All smiles. Nahi nahi bhaiya esa kuch nahi. (No, it’s not like that).

IIT se bahut achchi naukri lag jaati hai. Videsh bhi chale jaate hein. (IITians get very good jobs and salary. They go abroad as well.)

Haan yeh baat to hai. (Yes, that is true.)

He seemed to have developed some respect for me as soon as I mentioned that I am from IIT. I was also surprised to know that he was familiar with IIT! And so, we both had found a mutually interesting topic. He would praise me and IIT and academics and people who study and importance of school work and everything related to studies. And I would blissfully shine in the glamour of being “studious”. Obviously, only I knew how much I was screwing up my studies in IIT at that time, but it didn’t matter then. At that moment, I was one of the few, maybe .0001% of all the students in the country and would gladly share my wisdom with the auto wala!

It turned out that guy was pretty sharp. He asked me about engineering, the different departments, what we study, what kind of jobs we do after the program, and so on. For a few of the questions, even I didn’t know the answer. He kept asking me questions and I was liberally answering. We moved on to exchange details about our families, friends, plans etc. By this time, all the suspicion was gone.

As we kept talking, the guy told me about how he didn’t work hard in school and how hard life has been for him. I tried to boost his morale by saying that he was doing a good job and there was lot more that he could still do! Then suddenly, he asked me if I considered him a friend. I was little taken aback from this sudden change in thoughts. I said, ‘sure yeah’, I mean what else could have I said. He offered, ‘If you want to go around Bombay let me know, I will be around Powai area.’ I said ‘sure’, though obviously we both knew that chances of that happening were pretty low.

I was wondering how much far we still had to go, when he asked me if I can have a cup of coffee with him. I was like whoa! I was both scared and flattered. My fear of him was completely gone now, it wasn’t raining anymore, plus we were in a crowded area again. But this twist in the tale was confusing. I said, ‘no my brother is waiting, he would be concerned.’ So he said, ‘don’t worry you can call him.’ I was still quite hesitant at which he got really defensive, attacking me ‘would you consider it improper to have coffee with a person like me, an auto driver?’ I strongly objected him saying he had been so nice to me, like an elder brother. But I insisted: ‘I still can’t have coffee with you this time. I am very tired from a long journey, my brother is waiting’ But he didn’t listen to me.

He was already driving towards L&T, and stopped at one of road side tea shops. I was pleasantly surprised to see his choice of place to have coffee. He told me to stay seated inside the rickshaw and he will grab us both coffee. So I took the opportunity to call and inform R. R was shocked to hear that I had stopped to have coffee with an auto walah!!! Was it a joke or for real?

The coffee came in tiny plastic cups, barely 3 gulps of it. When he handed me the cup, I felt grateful. Until now I was resisting this whole thing, feeling very awkward about having coffee with a man I met barely 30 mins back, but then when we both actually started drinking quietly, both occupied with their thoughts, it felt like a regular thing to do. It wasn’t weird anymore.

I guess in those few minutes of our journey together there was an exchange of something more than just words. I don’t know what was going on in his mind, but for me it was a completely mind blowing experience. From scare of being kidnapped, I went on to have coffee with this guy! How paranoid I was I to think of kidnapping?! Why was I so suspicious of everything he said or did? And now, the very same person is treating me to coffee and it doesn’t feel weird anymore! How come?! It was as if with every sip a fear was getting dissolved. A deep rooted fear of strangers, fear of people was melting away. My mind was storing this memory which would become a guiding light for all the future travels.

Dialogue with Strangers [Series Post]

Over the next few weeks, I will post dialogues I have had with strangers (turned friends) during the trips I have had in the last 10 years.

Travel means quite a few things to me: getting lost in nature, seeing a bit of a new culture, eating new stuff (while yearning for home food :P), personal development, meeting new people. Most of the stuff I do on a holiday is forgotten a few months of coming back; it is the people and my encounters with them which lingers on in my mind. I would like to share those experiences here for future fun reads.

In this post, I will start by making a list of all such conversations. Going further, I will post about one conversation every week.

2002, from Dadar station to IIT hostel: Coffee date with the rickshaw wala

2005, Solo trip to Mundoli: The contractor & the journalist

2007, Solo trip to Wayand: The boy who got me back to Bangalore

2007, Solo trip to Naggar: Manju, the girl with dreams

2008, Solo trip to Baran: The woman on a mission

2013, Murren: The Casanova professor and his lovely wife

2014, Solo trip to Kinnaur: The trend-setter, icon of running

2014, Sichuan Valley: A Chinese teenager who inspired an Indian adult

2015, the island of Boracay: An Austrian couple who want to own a resort island

2015, a mountain village in Vent: A German couple inspiring in their struggles

Hope while writing these stories I would be able to do justice to the beautiful conversations I have had with these amazing, inspiring and sometimes weird people.

Why fewer women at the top of their professions

While working full time is a privilege for most of the woman around the world, it is not a necessity. The reasons and the nature of work for men and women are different. Here I present my case why there are fewer women in top circles of the work force.

EXPECTATIONS

The scenarios below show how women enjoy a sort of freedom which men never have.

Her income does not pay bills. Mostly goes into saving accounts. No stress about earning.

Men = -1 Women = +1 (Freedom women)

Choice to get a less paid, more rewarding job in a low paying sector. Choice to leave job.

Men = -1, Women = +1 (Freedom women)

NO Expectation to provide support, money to external family or friends in need. Societal pressure.

Men = -1, Woman = +1 (Freedom women)

There are quite a few benefits of having an option not to earn to feed the ever rising consumption and demands (read diamond jewellery and Vacation in Hawaii). The freedom to not work is what women have. They work and earn to feel liberated, to have an option to live independently, to spend money as they like. On the other hand, men have to work to provide. They have no choice about leaving their jobs or even take a break when things are tough. They do not have an option to try out different career paths. Money matters (for earners). They do not have an option to spend money as they like. If an earning woman buys a 10k USD worth bag for herself, it is cool. Whereas, if an earning man spends the same amount in casino, it is a crime. Why did he not invest this sum in mutual funds?! Does he not care about the future of his family?!!

However, the reason why such gender bias exist is because of:

The expectation to make it large in life, earn a lot of money, climb the success ladder, where success is defined as achievement in career. This expectation is only from men.

Men = -1, Women = -1 (No freedom)

Feminists keep stressing on the importance of having women at work. I was listening to this powerful video by Sheryl Sandberg and I realized a key reason for this problem “why a smaller percentage of women than men reach the top of their professions” is the pressure/stress which men have to reach at the top.

The problem why women are not on the top is the other side of the problem why men at the top are so stressed and unsatisfied. The answer lies in one word: EXPECTATIONS. It is no surprise that expectations motivate you and shape your future. We all read in ‘To Sir With Love’ how the power in a mentor’s expectations completely redefines a student’s future. However, in this case the problem is too much expectations and not the lack of it.

The problem is not simply that the world does not expect women to perform best at work or reach the highest step in the success ladder. The problem is that, this and more is expected from every male. His individuality, his choices, his skills, his temperament, his freedom, does not matter. You are a man if you earn well, you do pretty well at your work, or, you are a loser.

And even those women who are pretty good at their jobs, who can provide for the entire family, who enjoy their jobs more than their house chores; even these women would not accept their men to be sitting at home, doing nothing. These women would rather choose to sympathize with their husbands on corporate politics and competitive work environment, rather than ask him to take a back seat, chill at home, while they take the front seat. “You don’t like your job. Its is okay quit it. Let me earn for both of us. You do what you want to do. ” How many times have you heard a woman say these words?

Reaching at the top isn’t easy. It requires a lot of sacrifices. It means not having time to spend with your kids, your parents. It means not able to pursue your hobbies. It means not catching up with friends. It means not having the time to learn new skills.

It is overrated. It is risky. It is difficult. It is not for everyone. And yet every man is forced to reach the top. No matter how unhappy the process makes him.

The first step in resolving women’s inequality issue lies in first tackling men’s inequality problem. It lies with people who are not able to imagine all husbands earning less than their wives. Men leaving their jobs to explore things they like to do, while their wives provide. Such attitudes have led to the main problem: a dearth of good leaders from any gender or race. When the pressure from men is released, both men and women can compete together for the top roles based on their “interest”, “aptitude”, “personality”, “skill set”. Based on their merits. Women can only successfully compete in the highly competitive environment at the top, if their men/partners truly believe in them and stand with them strong in this pursuit. Same is the case for men. Expectations from women will rise only when they fall off from men. Which will be a win-win situation for both.

If we want equality, let us be ready to be equally responsible for the duties. How many of us working women out there contribute to more than 50% of the household expenses? If you are a true feminist and actually believe in equality, the time has come to step up and start taking care of it 100%. Let your man take a breather. And only then will you find yourself living with a true feminist man!

To believe

What do you wanna do today?

So many things. Go to ECP and take my first lesson in sailing. Sleep under a tree afterwards.

Clean the house. Arrange the cabinets. Fold bulk of clothes lying around. Dust off my room.

Nothing as such. You tell. O ya, I need to cook some veggies for the week. But I will be done by 12:30.

O ok. Wanna go out somewhere?

I just told him I have to cook. Why is he pushing me?

As in?

As in, for a run. Or a hike.

Ya can go.

I haven’t stretched nor done myofasical release from the last one week. I need to do that too. It’s a must. When will I do that? I haven’t written anything in this month. Haven’t painted in the last many months. Haven’t finished reading any of the 2-3 books that I had started.


The other day I touched the feet of my mother-in-law asking for blessing. She blessed me with her heart “may all your wishes come true!” O my! Is that even possible?

There is no end to wishes. Before one comes true, there is a new one which is already being pursued.

Before one course goes live, another one is in pipeline.

Before one lecture’s notes are ready, another one is to be worked upon.

Before one art is mastered, I am dreaming of another one.

Before one sport is played to win, I wanna try a new one too.

Before one injury is healed off, another one is received.

New pictures to take, new blogs to write, new books to read, new movies to watch, new clothes to buy, new paths to hike on, new roads to drive on, new countries to visit, new skills to learn, the list keeps going on endlessly.

Then there are things which I must do, which are not on the list. Cook, clean, work, entertain guests, manage social circle, be there when and where required. Be responsible. Be a good wife, good friend, a good daughter, a good sister, a good citizen (keep reading news every min on twitter!).

And yet every morning, I find it difficult to get up. I lay awake waiting to move out of bed. I am unable to sit through an hour of meditation. I feel like 24 hours is too less and I am too ineffective to do everything that I want to. Forget about wishes coming true, I am not even able to try everything that I want to. I feel so exhausted, overwhelmed.

My boss in my old company, who is my only ideal in life so far, used to say, you should take up more tasks than you can manage/complete, you should dream to become great. His funda was simple. The more tasks you have in hand, the more targets you achieve. You will learn to become efficient. Tasks are inter-related in a way that we do not understand. Doing one task will, in some way or other, help you complete other task as well.

I do agree with him. It is not very difficult to try so many things at the same time. To be on your toes at every moment. The testing time is when you actually encounter a failure. To get up and start again is not very difficult. To believe in success, is.

To believe is to be non-calculative, unrealistic, crazy, unscientific, irrational.

It is the need of the hour.

From unable to run for even 5 mins, in less than 2 years, I can run non-stop for min 30 mins at any day/any time.
From unable to run for even 5 mins, in less than 2 years, I can run non-stop for min 30 mins at any day/any time.

The stretch

“Where does it hurt exactly?”

Here. Pointing to the area just below lower back, around buttocks.

“Ok, I want you to try out these actions and let me know which hurts.”

“Bend down and try to touch your toes. Does it hurt?”

Yes, but not all the way down, only at the initial 60 deg curve.

“On the scale of 1-10, how bad is the pain?”

How do you answer that question? What does 10 stand for? Will I pass out at 10? Then it will probably be unbearable at 5.

1-2 (Why am I even here if it isn’t paining 5 or above?)

When a doctor asks you about pain why is the pain always feel less than what it felt at home?! I felt a bit stupid not being able to pinpoint the problem though I knew my movement is restricted, it isn’t what it used to be.

After a few more exercises, we located the problem. 2-3 sessions later I felt new as before. No more ice packs at home! No more pain when I needed to bend to pick something off floor. Its funny how you notice your daily actions when you are not able to do them as smoothly. How many times we have to bend just to get dressed: putting on underpants/pants/socks/shoes. Now I am fine again.  Soon I will be able to row again!

Snap! Something just snapped inside. Sharp pain. Fuck. Will I drop this? This is food for a 100 people who have come here to sit and meditate. Time stood still. I can’t drop this. All focus on the weight. Take a few steps and reach the nearest platform. Dispose of the weight. Reach for a chair and sit down. Fuck.

I am in early thirties and incapable of picking up at 10 kg weight from the ground! What the fuck!!! Is it because of rowing? I don’t want to row ever again if it means I would be compromising with my basic abilities. Panic.

Doc! I thought I was well now! Desperation.

“Your core is very weak. Especially the back. Due to the lot of stress on the back lately, it is still in a delicate stage. The muscles aren’t very strong around that area so it the backbone gets the burnt.” After a session of a myofascial release I felt much better. Calmer. But I was still uncertain. I have felt better before. It was misleading.

Today is the DBS Marina Regatta. The races I wanted to participate in.

Annichaar. Uncertainty. A good lesson for a control freak like myself! Sports teach you almost everything you need to learn in life! Persistence, perseverance, uncertainty,  patience, discipline, motivation. And it teaches you when to stretch yourself beyond your fears. It teaches you that there will be many more chances to look forward to.

Everything is temporary

Meditation Hall in Singapore Vipassana Camp, St. John's Island
Meditation Hall in Singapore Vipassana Camp, St. John’s Island

I have wanted to write about this incredible new journey in my life that I started about 2 years back, but every time I start, words fail me. Please bear with me if I divert or ramble a lot.

The experience that I want to capture in words is very difficult to explain to those who haven’t had similar experiences. Like seeing an ocean for the first time. How do you explain your experience to someone who has never an ocean before. To simplify extremely, I would just say, meditation is like a work out for mind. You have a target to achieve, like 50 crunches in a gym, and you need to reach that after trying continuously. The target keeps getting tougher and tougher as you get better at the exercises. The ultimate goal is to make the mind so strong that you are always in a meditative state irrespective of any other activity that you might be involved in.

The meditation technique that I am trying to learn is Vipassana as taught by SD Goenka. Why I started on this path was simply because I needed a very strong and powerful change in my attitude. It was just like someone joining a diet program if they are desperate to lose weight. There were a few things about myself that I was quite fed up of and wanted to get rid of them. For instance, losing my cool in the time of testing, being angry when someone does me wrong, being very emotional about things. There were times when I found myself extremely sad and at the same thing wondering why the hell am I so sad. I am one of those very few individuals in the world who have best of everything: health, education, rights, money, everything which people seek I have it already, and yet I can be so unhappy at times. If I am not happy now under current circumstances, then it is highly unlikely that I ever would be! And hence, I was looking for a complete overhaul.

It is very simply achieved by the art of ‘observing’. So there are four types of minds which are always on work: memory, conscious, reaction, feeling. A very crucial type of mind which is never worked/exercised and hence becomes very weak is ‘observing’ kind. In order to strengthen this mind, you need to exercise it to work. You learn to observe your own body. You are not allowed to imagine anything, or get inputs from any sensory organs such as those of sight, noise, touch, taste, smell. You are only required to observe each and every cell of your body using your mind. With some concentration and practice, it is quite easy to achieve a state when you can feel and observe all the nerve cells or blood vessels running under your skin. The higher goal is to be able to feel each and every molecule in your body.

We all understand that everything is temporary. It is because we see everything as changing. There are flowers which live for a day or less. An earthquake changes the whole landscape within a few seconds. The path of a river keeps changing every year. These changes are either very slow in time or very big in size to ignore. The changes which happen at a very small scale and at a very fast pace are not noticed by us. Like in high frequency trading, machines trade a thousand times within a second to earn a profit of say 1 dollar. The speed of each transaction is too fast for a human to comprehend. We can only see the cumulative results at the end of a time interval: a second or a minute. The universe is also changing at a speed which can’t be monitored by our conscious mind. However, the unconscious mind which does very fast processing can be trained to comprehend and witness that fast change. And that is where meditation comes in to the picture.

Although it is easy to believe in the fact that nothing is permanent, everything is always changing. But believing in something is not enough to bring about behavioral changes. For instance, there are many people who believe in equal rights say between homosexuals and heterosexuals. However, they would still cringe with disgust when they see two homosexuals display affection/love/intimacy in public view. Whereas, they might find a man and woman kissing passionately very natural and even liberating! Similarly, at the time when you are extremely sad or happy, it is very difficult to calm down with just a belief that tomorrow might not be the same. It is very much possible that tomorrow everything in your life takes an upside down turn and hence today’s emotions/feelings would no longer matter anymore. This is easy to understand but difficult to implement.

To actually bring about a behavioral change, the mind needs to be trained. And this is exactly what meditation does.

But it is a very long and very slow journey. I feel blessed to have started on this long path though.

Mind games

 

IMG_5572

“Ok, so what do you want me to do?” exasperatedly I asked.

“Have fun! What else?”

What a shallow answer that was.

“Is that what you think is the purpose of our lives?”

“Do you know of any other purpose?”

Yeah. Of course not. There is no freaking purpose of existence at all. We just happen to fill a time period in the evolutionary time scale on earth. I might end up doing something amazingly awesome without as much as a clue whether it would make any difference, positive or negative now or in billions of years to come. Everything one does is wrapped into different time frames.

Taking advantage of my silence it continued: “Yeah so have fun!”

“Why the hell am I even living then? I might as well discontinue this existence right away if it anyways amounts to nothing.”

“Yup. You can.”

Wow. This does not help me at all. Not that I am suicidal or desperate. Without a project at hand that can help me get a jump start in the morning; that can maintain the adrenaline rush through the day; that can keep my mind off these random crazy thoughts, I suffer from these bouts of ‘existential crisis’. I know they will pass. Nonetheless, the question is valid. What is the meaning of life? Are we just looking for reasons to pass time till we die?

“Have a kid. Your perspective will take a U-turn.”

Obviously! That is why I do not have a kid. I do not need another perspective. Obviously if I have the responsibility of giving birth and raising another human being, the question would no longer remain valid. Like any other living being, I would be alive to procreate and keep the species growing.

“Meditate and the answer will come to you.”

That is true. Life is exactly like meditation.

Both consist of an infinite series of games in which one is constantly playing against the mind. Mind is by default lazy, negative, destructive, emotional, and fickle. Every moment, you need to fight that impulse to be able to create, remain positive, and maintain stable and existence.

When there is work in life to keep your mind occupied, it is like meditating with a chant. Easy to keep focus on. Just keep repeating the chant, as if in a trance.  Work is like trance. It has a similar effect on life as chanting in meditation; the effect of being ‘high’, inebriated.

The real struggle is when there is no chant, no sound, and no stimulus. No work. No project. Nothing to look forward to. You still need to keep your focus on.

Life is just a mind game. And you must play to win. Every moment of it.

Responsible Development (India vs China hydro projects)

I had made two trips in May and June of 2014 to the two mountainous regions of India and China. First one was in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh of India, which lies in the west to the Tibetan plateau. Second one was in the Dauxe Mountain range, a part of Hengduan Mountains, in the Sichuan province of China, which lies in the east to Tibet border. Kinnaur was a lone backpacking trip carried through public transport or friendly hitchhiking.  China trip was an organized trekking trip in a group of around 10 people.

In India trip, I travelled the entire distance from New Delhi to Kalpa to Sangla Valley and back to Delhi on road. In China, the distance from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, to Kangding to the base village near Mount Gongga to CoaKe village and back to Chengdu was on road. The total distance travelled in India was about 1300 km and that in China was about 800 km. Time spent on road in India was about 50 hours in public transport and co-travellers’ Innova. Time spent in China was about 15 hours in private mini-bus vehicle. Most of the time spent was in both the journeys was in the hilly areas going up till almost 3000 m above sea level.

The stark difference between both these travels was the quality of roads and the quality of environment in terms of deforestation and landslides adjacent to the hydro projects. Both of these areas have rivers and steep valleys making them suitable for hydro projects.

In Kinnaur district, the biggest dam is at the Kancham-Wangtoo, a Jaypee project, which was started more than a decade ago. There are many small projects all over the valley. Due to the massive floods of July 2013, the roads were still not repaired when I had visited in May 2014. In fact, on the Sangla-Chitkul Road which cuts from NH22 towards Sangla Valley the stones, rocks were constantly falling on our car for over a distance of about 20 kms. The driver of my taxi had his window-shield broken in one of the incidents when the rock actually hit his car! He was keeping a watch on the falling rocks from the slopes above while also looking ahead on the broken road.

Hydro project India
Hydro project India

In China as well, there were many hydro projects that we passed en route from Chengdu to Kangding. However, the roads were incredibly well maintained. There were a few cracks in the road here and there which could be due to rains or snowfall. But all the main highways G108, G318 were not only very smooth and safe; they had many tunnels to cross over valleys and dangerous routes. We covered a distance of about 10 kms just in the tunnels on our return journey from CaoKe village to Chengdu via Ya’an.

Broken road India
Common Broken road in India
Most broken road in China trip
Most broken road in China trip, this was probably the worst patch

During my entire time in China, I compared everything that I saw or heard or experienced with India. I might have been comparing (Indian)Apples to (Chinese)Oranges (pun intended!) but it was unavoidable. I couldn’t help but gape at the infrastructure development carried by Chinese government in the same difficult terrain and dangerous areas as those in Indian Himalayas. What the hell were we doing wrong?

Cemented mountain walls in China
Cemented mountain walls in China
IMG_5153
Untreated barren eroded walls in India

When I came back I read this story about the village in China which literally carved a tunnel using chisels and hammers for 5 years. Everyone knows China has constructed motor able roads till Mount Everest Base camp. I found that China is even creating more powerful and huge dams. On the other hand, we in India are halting development, because our development is probably resulting in more harm. From what I saw in Kinnaur, I could not help but agree with this report about how the hydro power projects in Kinnaur have actually reduced the place into a landslide infested barren and dangerous region.

Let me be clear about one thing, I believe in development. I believe in construction of roads to connect people and cultures. To promote business and trade. To allow education and personal growth. I also strongly believe in capability of our engineers and scientists to build projects which are both environmentally friendly and allow developmental growth.

What I do not understand is why we have not been able to achieve that in the most vulnerable part of the ecosystem, i.e. our mountains? Is this also due to lack of capital or greed to earn more profits? Is it because the government doesn’t have enough resources to implement the guidelines suggested by environmentalists’ at the time of project inception? Or is it because we didn’t have an active civil body to raise concerns and monitors progress of such projects? Or is it because everyone would rather make money using corrupt means than take up responsibility of such projects?

While coming down from Rampur to Shimla in a taxi, I had a long conversation with the taxi driver who was from the Rampur district. We spoke about the degradation of Kinnaur area and how land was further sliding downwards in the Peo village. Though I sensed a lot of biasness against Kinnaur locals from him due to some local traditional conflicts in the two areas, one more connected to Punjab-Haryana plains and another more connected to Spiti and Tibetian culture, it is possible that locals couldn’t/didn’t do much in this case to avoid such a downfall of this area. Maybe they were happy with the money they got from the land sold for these projects. Or maybe the projects brought work to them that fetched them money. Or maybe they didn’t know whom to approach and how to get heard regarding the rising dust and pollution in that area.

When I think of mountains, I think of trees. I think green. I think of flowers and birds. I think of rivers and not riverbed mining. I think of natural erosion and landslides and not hydro power tunnelling explosions, barren faces of mountains as an after effect. I think of pure natural air and not clouds of sand and dust.

I really do not know where we are failing in our developmental endeavours, but it is high time someone starts a company which can provide solutions into ecosystem preservation. Given the crazy funding activity going on, I am pretty sure a business idea around valley conservation and responsible tourism will be a big hit with investors! Something must be done.

National highway from Kalpa towards Kaza
National highway from Kalpa towards Kaza
Wild flowers near highway in China
Wild flowers near highway in China

Someone else’s business

Quick with advice

Offered for no price

Deprived of wisdom

Poking nose in someone else’s business


The poor soul who works

Who knows the system

The man with a vision

Understands the difference between will and indecision

Has a meaning for his existence.

He who works, becomes the victim


The one with free advice

Has to prove his point

With no experience, no knowledge

No wisdom, no mission

He speaks and argues and questions and pretends

Hopes his words will become a reason


The man who does

Hears the man with words

Wonders if he can show him the difference

Between talking and doing

Wondering and knowing

Asking and answering


The man with words

With nothing better to do

Hopes his word

Would stop someone else too

From doing and trying

Failing and succeeding