31 December 2006

Thank you, Wendrick

This is a good time to dig out some of my old letters.. this one from Wendrick, written exactly a year back, is one of those timeless classics... don't bother about the context in which it was written... it's irrelevant, really.

New Years Greetings from The Land of Wendrick
Hello Amaresh,
Wow, don't quite know how to start or what to say....At the least, we are concerned about your "period" of confusion....It hasn't expanded into worry yet and we're really hoping your break will truly rejuvenate your whole being.....Its so far back that it's hard to re-kindle the negative emotions that we went through when we first encountered the letdown of other peoples private agendas....Hey, you have yours too....It's a sad reality of the human experience.....It will be no comfort, but it will not be the last friend whose role shifts with time and distance....You can hold a thought longer than most and its tiring for them to keep up with your progress because its evolving at a different pace......The understanding you are gaining on a daily basis is hard to express to those with lesser capacity....Everything that was mutually understood has lost its bonding function and the gap widens with each passing moment....Time won't let you stay.....The only consolation is if you can take what you learned about yourself (and your response or reaction) and take that new understanding and make it useful to your future....Everything seems so easy to understand in retrospect and its hard to realize that these stumbling blocks are having a very real impact on your state of mind, your emotions, and your future.....
In a way, it will be better if you don't hear about your test until after your break.....it will test your resolve to have complete control of your mind and life....without the decision already having been made about your physical reality....School, Job, Travel, Life of an Ascetic...what does it matter....having control of your own destiny is the game.....Embrace your choices and with the best thoughts cleared of daily interference....the choice will be apparent....Be Happy....First & Foremost....Even your friends will be more supportive of the whole you....Be Real...You're Special to everyone you touch.....Hey, have no idea where this is coming or going to....except its coming from our hearts and going to you....Have a Great New Year.....Write when you return....Be Well....Build an OFF switch into your thinking and find that place where absence of thought becomes a comfort and joy....Really re-charge those batteries....We love you and are happy to only be concerned instead of worried...lol....
Wendy & Rick

29 December 2006

morbid thoughts

We decided to lean on each other, we needed each other's strength... one day, the other person found a cigarette too tempting to resist, and me, too insignificant to justify resisting the cigarette... and so, took a few steps back to fetch the smoke, while I fell down and broke.

I used to think irrationality justifies everything. Madness, like being drunk, is an excuse to do shit.

Some things (like one's word, spoken or otherwise) shouldn't be let down, ever.

Irrationality, madness and the associated immunity be damned.

It's the time to stand up and be a man.

Mistakes... spilt milk... I'll wipe the milk and my memory while I'm still floundering on the floor.

Someone, help me with a cloth, please?

8 December 2006

New Zealand is where I want to go, at least today. I don’t know which way I’ll sway in the coming month, but I’ve had enough of this system. The routine of lectures, quizzes, intoxication, games… it’s the most fun anyone can expect in any college, but too much of it saturates my taste buds… I’ve had enough. I don’t want to go thru another year, living a restricted, albeit fun life here… it’s a closed world, where our world ends at the campus gate. There are only 300 people in this world; everyone can potentially know everything about everyone else. Perfect knowledge? Elections are entertaining… we’re voting to elect the kings of our own little world. Our senses of perception and understanding are limited by the restrictive walls fortifying our minds here. This is our world, and that’s all there is to our lives for 2 years. News trickles in thru my laptop, the newspaper, some post on the newsgroups, some talk in the mess and some lectures… I don’t see the real world. I can’t feel the change. In some ways, it feels like I’m under a plastic surgeon’s knife. The operation lasts for 2 years, with a handful of minor, week-long breaks, and I’m completely transformed at the end of it all. The outside world views me differently, and, maybe as a consequence, I view the outside world differently. When I went back home during my first term break, everything seemed strange. I was getting to know Madras all over again. A lot of my friends are gone. There are some, who I cant speak to the same way that I used to. I wish I could tell them everything that I’ve gone thru here, and how I’ve changed, but that would be too long a story, even by my standards. It’s hard to relate to some things and some people. People move on at different speeds. I felt it at some point of time when I was stuck with the factory job. Now I’m on the other side of the divide. Strange feeling. I want to get back home, to meet my old friends. Goodnight.

The closest non-sexual experience to orgasmic bliss is a lengthy pee after hours of holding back.

20 November 2006

From The Recycle Bin

Sorry for the dearth of original thought... rewind to March 2006, moving from Rewa, MP to Varanasi... back during my days in The Free World. I'm really missing Ladakh... Summer of 2008... Mongolia, here I come!


I was pretty disillusioned the end of my stay in MP. Things are reeaally sad there. Rewa is nothing but a bus stand and a train station. Typical dog-eats-dog world. If you happen to carry a backpack, be ready to be hounded by a dozen touts, bus conductors, auto-cheats... they'd yell all the places known to them "Railway Station!!? Allahabad!? Mandla??? Jabalpur!" All except Heaven, Hell and Varanasi.

We decided to check out the trains... we learnt that it costs 10-15 max to get to the station by auto. So this chap comes to me and says "rly station? forty!" And I yell at him for trying to cheat me... and he apologises profusely... "reeeeaally sorry, sir... sorry! sorry!! sorry!!! ok, 20!"

While loitering around the bus-stand, katan came across a couple of prostitutes... 500 was the going rate.

Katan asks for the newspaper and the news-stand guy hands him some soft porn mag. Katan says "No, English newspaper!" And the guy picks out English soft porn. Fed up, Katan asks for "The Week" magazine... and the other guy gives him a 2-min big-bro talk on why porn every week is good for him. He did get the mag eventually - oh, I mean The Week.

These buses are really interesting and funny, but only after you finish the journey and look back. This is how it works... they'd draw a straight line from the starting point to the final destination, and pick out all the little towns and villages within 25 km on either side of that line and make sure that the bus passes thru every single point... much like a shoelace or something. So the average speeds vary from a max of 40 kph to lower than 20, which happened during that 8 hour session of bone-crunching thru interior MP. I could run faster than that.

So we reached Allahabad late that morning, really sick of the heat... luckily we found an air-con bus - our 11th bus ride of the trip... we'd had enough. The next bus ride would've been to hell. There were little kids - no more than 8-10 yrs old, selling all kinds of stuff... one of them had a bunch of magazines in his hand. He held out an array of 5 mags, ranging from devotional (Some Goddess sitting on the cover page, holding a Veena) to informative (like All-India Road Map compressed into a 40 page booklet) to local soft porn (ugly fat women scattered all over the cover... they couldn't have fit in any more pictures in that little space)... the guys sitting next to me picked out the porn and started bargaining and teasing the kid, who was unmoved. The kid, all of 10 yrs max, held firm, even educating the men on why the mag would be worth the price... and the men eventually bought the mag. These kids should be sitting in some classroom... and there are so many of them. That's the sad part. Underdevelopment, filth, lack of hygeine... all that is fine in comparison to these kids being deprived of education.

All along the bus rides, there would be people giving us their addresses, and requesting us to help them get a job in madras. There is absolutely nothing happening in these parts. No jobs, no development. People just sit around all day, do nothing - well, not nothing, if you include playing cards under the banyan tree, sitting around the pan shop spitting their lives away... no jobs. There is no sense of urgency, or even purpose, in anything that goes on there.

Anyway, we arrived at Varanasi, extremely tired and dehydrated. There is nothing worse than checking out a bunch of hotels for a good room, when fatigued. There was one Indian who shooed us away because he doesn't entertain Indians in his hotel. We were too tired to protest. We ended up in a good room, with TV and all, and more importantly, with a super view of the Ganges.

21 October 2006


The door is pushed open by the wind, and shut, and opened... the cool wind gushes in intermittently. God mysteriously brings rain on Deepavali, even to Indore. Rain on this day used to piss me off many years back. Not anymore though. Crackers don't send blood rushing through my veins anymore. Showing off new clothes to anyone who cares to look, buying more fireworks than I could use... all that's gone. I'm too old for that kind of stuff. It's harder to get high as I grow older.

I'm sitting in my hostel room, listening to the rain... getting tutored to eat fellow dogs, amass wealth and die. Wish me luck.

20 September 2006

Dying a slow death

3 months at iim indore. i've been institutionalised.

there is much randomness inside the system, but on the whole, it's still a bloody system which tries to restrict life.

after the end-term stress, i thought my mind would feel free sitting in that bus, looking out, watching the scenery flow by, like i've done on countless bus rides over the years... but i was like a rock. no thoughts, no emotions. it was a dream, and i was sleepwalking thru everyday. 3 days have gone by, and i have little lasting memory of what happened... for that matter, i have little lasting memory of the last 3 months.

all the randomness in the outside world feels so strange. i used to love the chaos... used to thrive on it... now it seems like a strange little thing. im not used to it anymore, iim indore is not random. i feel out of place in the outside world. there is some faint memory of my past, of how things used to be... but thats all it is, a feeble aroma of a beautiful past... i dream of the emptiness and splendour of Ladakh... the wind on my face, all the time and space in the world... the beautiful life. the free life.

my intention is not to crib... this was all known to me before i stepped in, and it was a conscious choice... but i dearly hope that the wild side of my doesn't get trampled and killed over the next two years... I only hope, that when i make that trip to Mongolia after 2 years, I'll have the open mind.

I said this about Gopal at the end of the Ladakh trip... there are some parts of us which can't die, which cant be taken away... I hope that I'm right.

4 September 2006

Some people (like Elvis, for example :-)) get on the bus with a bottle of cola. I wonder if people are really that fond of cola at all times or if there is something that a bus does to people's heads. They sip on it happily until it goes down to the bottom bulge, by which time it's warm as piss, and coincidentally, they become generous.

2 September 2006


Another friend flies out. All the memories come back, crystal clear. We just didn’t bother writing. Lost touch. I feel bad now. The walk back from IIT classes. The stimulating discussions. I’m glad he chose Physics over Engineering. To think that I sat next to him during those amazing Physics classes by Balaji makes me proud. I hope he wins the Nobel someday. I won’t see him again for years. But change is good. Time to move on. I have a lump in my throat, like the day Bhavana left. I’ll miss my friend.

Farewell, Ganesh Beedi :-)

3 August 2006

South India = Lots Of Sex

April 2, 2006, 8:30pm; Rewa, Madhya Pradesh

Phew! What a ride! Ok, where do I start...
I felt slightly weak and sick by the time I left Jabalpur... and the 3 back-to-back bus rides to get to Bandavgarh National Park didn't help me much. The bus ride from Katni to Umaria was my first taste of rural (underdeveloped) Madhya Pradesh. Once every few kms, there would be an excuse for a village, with a handful of houses, 2 pan-cum-cigarette shops, kids sitting by the shade and staring at the bus, which seems like their most eagerly awaited event of the day. An hour into the ride, this young chap, wearing shades which he never removed, got in and sat next to me. And then the conversation began...
After updating him on my geographical roots and the purpose of the trip, he told me that I speak excellent Hindi for a south indian. Right then I should've guessed that he's a retarded bastard. Anyway, with my ego boosted, I told him about South India, my education... he told me that he was going to meet his girlfriend, and that he'd propose to her that evening if the mood is right... and that they'd go to some restaurant and temples... he adviced me to spend a few days in each city that I visit (he picked out jabalpur as an example), to visit the places there... the temples... more temples... still more temples... gosh! I thought he was some saint. And how the women go around the temples in their own unique style (like different from south indian women... god knows what he meant).
Then I generally observed that men and women move move freely here in MP than down south... like the iron curtain doesn't exist. He thought about it for a while, then bluntly said "But, there is a lot of sex in the south, nah?" I was like "eh? What do I do - go around knocking doors to take a census or something?" I mumbled some general bullshit about how it's hard to generalise... then he spoke about actors and actresses... how he likes the dance movements in the south movies... suddenly he quizzed me about the red-light scene in Madras. I told him that it exists... mentioned Kodambakkam... then he wanted to know the rates... I didn't want to let down my know-it-all guard, and mumbled that it starts at rs.2,000. He wasn't gonna let me go so easily, so he asked hourly rates... and asked me if I had experience... I gave a blunt "no, I dunno anything more... only hearsay... by the way, when's your stop coming up... " and changed the topic. Then he spoke about alcohol and ganja... he yelled out ganja so loud that katan, sitting 3 seats away, could effortlessly follow our conversation.
I mentioned the bit about people spitting all over the place, and how disgusting it is... he listened patiently for 3 minutes and then took a gutka sachet out of his pocket...
Then a bunch of early teenaged school girls got into the cramped bus. Our cool dude sat upright and offered this dark, pretty girl with big, stunning eyes, place to stand in between his legs and the front seat. He enquired which class (8th), why she's in the bus (exam in her school, a few villages away), what exam (english)... everytime he'd ask her (in hindi) and she'd reply (in hindi) and he'd look at me and repeat the exact same thing, in hindi. Then I grew sick of his alcohol-temple-ganja-women-films-sex talk, and thankfully he was getting off soon... then I saw him run his hand up that girl's thigh. I thought my eyes were lying, then I stared at it in shock for a couple of seconds, and then I looked at him, not knowing what to do. He gave me an evil grin, patted my shoulder and got off the bus 5 seconds later. The girl didn't move a muscle. She just stood there like a statue, and calmly sat next to me when the bastard left. I felt so bad, the worst part is that I didn't have a clue as to what to do. Crazy.
Along the way, we saw some modern, jean-and-bright-red-tshirt-clad goondas, the bus driver promised money on the way back and continued.
We stood for an hour in a cramped bus from Umaria to get to Bandavgarh, which also happens to be the name of the national park. That evening, I fell sick. Uncontrollable shivering and high fever... oh, and diarrhoea! I thought I was down with Malaria... didn't go for the safari the next day... I was just happy to be alive. Katan and the german dude he shared the jeep with didnt spot a tiger. I felt better during the day, and we made plans to get me back to civilization in the most painless route possible. Stuck in the middle of the forest, with a minimum of 2 maddening bus rides to reach any excuse for civilization, I was really glad to spot a doc right there. He checked my pulse, then prescribed a bunch of tabs for cold and fever. Total charges for the doc and the tabs ballooned to rs.2.
The German felt cheated cuz he didnt see any tiger. He felt that they had the tigers caged, and that they'd set it out once in a while for the tourists who pay lots of money, fool them into thinking that they've seen a wild tiger, and then return the tiger to the cage... so he didnt' come for the evening safari, and I was undecided on risking the ride, and eventually none of us went.
I nervously awaited that night, to check on the malaria symptoms... fortunately, I felt super, no fever or shivering... only goddamn diarrhoea.
That brings us to this morning. We took a bus to this place called Rewa (pronounced as Reewa)... 150 kms were covered in 8 bloody slow hours! I think, the bus took us to half of MP's least developed villages... gosh! It was really scary. Utter poverty and joblessness. Filth everywhere... the only thing booming is the pan-tobacco biz. No schools in most of the villages... dirty kids, playing around in the filth. People spitting, blowing noses, even pissing right outside their homes. Basic sense and hygeine dont exist. The bus will stop randomly whenever the driver felt like having a smoke. The heat, dust and filth is unimaginable. The driver proudly claimed that this is more underdeveloped than bihar. I think they have some kind of competition. The kids stood in the shade, or chased animals... no schools.
The roads are a different story. Horrible is not the word. I can't find the word to describe it. The best part was when we passed a toll booth, and paid rs.44 (for the mini-bus)... 50 meters from the toll, the road just disappeared... no, not into some muddy path, but random scattering of stones, sand, huge craters (the size of the van itself) and mountains of dust. More like the surface of the moon. And that's the way it was for 50 odd kms. In that extreme heat, dust and madness, there were people working in a quarry, and breaking down rocks... gosh! I thought my job was bad. I still can't stop thinking about it. I've never seen anything like that.
Anyway, we arrived at Rewa. After checking out all possible options for getting to Varanasi, we settled for a night at rewa and an early morning bus tomorrow. Katan has an upset tummy, so he's been living on antacids all day.
Oh, and I forgot to tell you about this interesting signboard at nagpur. I made a blog entry long back about the signboards outside cyber cafes...
In Nagpur, I was gifted with new additions...
Latest Ringtones Download
Ok, that's it for now... off to Varanasi and a dip in the Ganges tomorrow! Phew! Crazy trip...

29 July 2006

by my own modest standards, im eating and shitting so much, that everytime i shit, it's scary to think that so much shit once resided in me.

26 July 2006

Perils Of The Window Seat

I can't travel anymore... spent 3 weeks between the hostel, mess and the acad block... so I'm recycling some old writings from my Central India trip in March... I wrote this while travelling, sitting in some dingy little internet cafe late in the night...

This whole place is weird... I mean central India. Kanha National park is some 200 kms from Nagpur, yet nobody there knows anything about it. So we spotted this place called Seoni on the map which seemed reasonably close to Kanha and took a good bus. Now that was a (private) sleeper bus (with berths and all, though we didnt need it) and it misled us into thinking that Madhya Pradesh has good buses. The next bus, from Seoni, was this typical dusty, sharp-edges-everywhere, rickety bus straight out of the pre-independence era. The bus passes some 30 kms from Kanha, but they deem that to be close enough to tell us that the bus is headed to the heart of Kanha. It stops once every 25 mins for a 20 min chai break... we spent the night at this dusty town called Mandla.

The next two days were at Kanha. We were the only independent Indian travellers there... there were some big families and lots of foreigners... we couldn't find anybody to tag onto for the safari, so we couldnt split the costs. Anyway, the summer heat brings the tigers to the numerous water-holes... I think we were not too lucky, so we only caught a brief glimpse of a tiger guarding its kill, well camouflaged in the tall grass and quite far away. Lots of deer, langurs and peacocks... this one peacock glided right over our jeep... splendid sight. The jeep driver is one of the typical dishonest clan... someone asked him if there were panthers in the park (the museum, write-ups, audio-visual show and advertisements didn't once mention panthers), and he mechanically said "ah, yes... definitely! Only, it's a little difficult to spot them..." I bet he'd say the same for Great White Sharks and snow-leopards.

The previous evening, I caught up with the local chaps over a game of volleyball, which was played with this rock-hard football. After 2 hours, my right hand was terribly sore, and adamant in disobeying my brain's orders. More than the game, my attention was grabbed by what is surely our national pass-time... spitting! Anyway, that comes later.

That night, as I was generally walking around after dinner, I met this bunch of jeep-drivers by the roadside... and some 15 mins later, I was sitting by the side of the road and sipping this local (alcoholic, of course) drink called 'Mou-wa'... pale white and tasting quite different... the next hour was spent controlling my laughter as I chatted with the two drivers, One of them is from Trichy, so he narrated his family story... somewhere in between, he claimed that Sri Lanka belongs to Tamil Nadu and that it's being illegally occupied. They didn't ask me anything, but that didn't stop me from stuffing them with what I did, where I am from... when I mentioned that Im a mechanical engineer, this chap asks me "oh, mechanic? which vehicle?"

They gave me this crumpled visiting card which looked unworthy of being used as toilet paper, and told me stories about Jabalpur, which is where they're from, just stopping short of claiming that Jabalpur is the best thing India has to offer after the Taj Mahal.

I underestimated the extremes of temperature in the central plains... the morning safari begins at 530, and I was there in my usual minimal clothing - shorts and a sleevless jersey... the 3 hours of shivering that ensued sure made me regret my dressing sense, or lack of it.

Today morning, we caught a bus to Mandla and then got a jeep ride to Jabalpur... the maniac who drove the sumo nearly killed us with his addiction to overtaking long buses over sharp, blind curves and a speeding jeep approaching on the other side... after one close shave, he gave this big grin and even tried to sound philosophical... "Never fear anything... God is there for all of us... what has to happen, will happen..."

Right now we're in Jabalpur, with telecom and internet facilities and all that... but it's so bloody hot during the day that Im feeling half dead even as Im writing this... we're thinking of Varanasi and Bodhgaya enroute to Calcutta. Im just too tired to think right now. I can only think of the blissful sleep that awaits me when I walk to that shady little room we got right next to the bus stand for 120 bucks.

I've never seen anything as dry as Central India... but I think it will be really pretty during the monsoon season... anyway, I doubt if we'll travel much in Bihar... too beaten up right now.

Oh, and the spitting... Nagpur has some 8 pan shops and 3 wine shops for every medical store. The sheer density of bars is mind-boggling... maybe they're just creating demand for the medical stores... and they spit (that reddish brown thingy from chewing pan) just about every goddamn place reachable by spit... car windows, post boxes, even poor stray dogs. Oh, but this has to be the best... today, in the bus, this stupid 30~ yr old female was sitting in front of me, chewing some equivalent of pan, which comes in little sachets (supari or something)... she calmly spit out of the window, narrowly missing my hand placed on the window pane. She didnt seem like stopping, and I realised the futility in explaining my difficulty to her using my Hindi, so I pushed the window glass forward to close her outlet to spit. Even that didn't stop her. She stooped forward to spit thru the window diagonally in front of her... and ended up with her on spit splashing across her face and upper body. Gross! Of course, even that didn't stop her from continuing with The National Passtime.

Ok that's enough.

23 July 2006

getting hammered helps.

opposites attract. birds of the same feather... english language sucks.

social compulsions suck.
dont judge a book by its cover... but wear suits when you work (and puke out ppts in the classroom).

madhya pradesh sucks. nobody works.
1 chemist for 200 cigarette shops. 2938 potholes for 1 road.

it's been 22 years.

20 June 2006

The Bumpy Ride

Most villages in Nagaland have two simple syllables, things like Ka, Ko, Ta, To... followed by a Ma or Wa... Kisama, Khonoma, Longwa, Tofema... like that... anyway, after a taste of see-the-artificial-tribal-huts at Kisama, we decided to go to a real village - Khonoma. The driver decided to take a shortcut, which had countless sharp stones popping out of the entire 20 odd km of slushy mud road and potholes were liberally strewn everywhere. The ride was so bumpy that I had an erection 20 minutes into the drive.

Khonoma was pretty. I wonder why film producers don't shoot lead-pair-running-around-trees videos in such villages, instead of Swiss meadows. We walked a bit, with Paulo dropping early hints on her dislike for any form of physical activity, walking in particular... anyway, more on that later.

The skies are perpetually dark and gloomy. Rain is a regular occurence. People go about their work paying little attention to the rain. We took shelter in a wooden house under construction. Supong never used his phone to make calls or send messages. He was really irritated with Reliance because they refused to allow outgoing calls once his balance became negative. Anyway, if he wasn't playing some ringtone, he would be taking aim at Paulo to click pictures. Mostly the latter. He told Joy and me, but not Paulo, about his his girlfriend. Anyway, Paulo thought he (too) was sweet.

We got a local SIM card for my mobile, which was valid in the 7 Northeastern states. So Supong would message his girlfriend from our phone. We couldn't refuse, nor could we resist eavesdropping. While we redefined frugality while using the limited balance, the writer in Supong came out through our phone. One particular message deserves special mention... 750 characters long, with exceptional attention to spelling, grammar and punctuation... he ended the message saying "This is my friends' phone. They have balance, so i am using it."

Anyway, Supong did take really good care of us, putting in much effort to ensure that we're happy with what we experienced. But for him, we would've had a rough time.

14 June 2006

Rented house? Mother Alive?

In Kohima, Joy's friend's (or contacts, as he affectionately calls such people) Supong and Woti offered to show us around town... Supong's dad (referred to as Uncle T) works in the Tourism Dept., and gave us valuable guidance and help.

People are irrational at times, and Uncle T was very impressed by Paulo.. I think he was looking at her as a prospective match for Supong.. so during our introductions, he reserved a special set of questions exclusively for Paulo...

What does your dad do?

Do you live in a rented house or...?

And then the shocker...

Is your mother alive?

Paulo turned and looked at me in shock, like I had the answer buried in my mouth..

So while we were at a cathedral, with Joy clicking away, Unc T suggested a neatly framed picture of Paulo standing in front of the cathedral, like a 6 yr old on her first excursion...

Paulo's final comment is that Unc T was sweet.

We went to some heritage village called Kisama.. they have huts resembling those of the 16 Naga tribes. It's a typical touristy place.. too artificial. Joy enquired about the number of tribes to every other person he met... he'd say something like "so, how many tribes... totally, how many tribes... in the whole of nagaland, how many tribles... how many major tribes..." Even worse, Joy asked the names of the tribes.. like he'd point to a certain hut and ask which tribe it belonged to... like the 2 kb memory card in his head is going to care enough to retain any of it.

11 June 2006

Tequila Shopping

I broke the ice with my dad yesterday.. told him I wanted to go liquor-shopping while we were in Pondicherry... Those That We Don't Speak Of died that afternoon. So he drove me from wine shop to wine shop... I wonder why they're called 'Wine' shops when, atleast in Tamil Nadu, I haven't ever seen anybody buy Wine from one of those shops... anyway, I was hunting for some Tequila to celebrate my last couple of weeks in Madras (or so goes the excuse).

The first cramped, dirty wine shop that I walked into had some 5 drunk men dispersed all around the counter... I asked for the Tequila, and one of the drunkards screams "What! Shakeela eh?" (for the uninitiated, Shakeela is a critically acclaimed porn star in the south... for more info, google/wiki)... and everyone laughs on my face for the Shakeela joke. I enlightened them that Tequila is not a brand of Whisky or Rum, but a drink by itself... then, that drunkard who mentioned Shakeela was so thrilled with the laughter he evoked that he chose to puke the exact same joke three more times, and they all laughed like it was the first time they heard it. Alcohol... madness.

The last time that I'd gone to Pondy, I went to buy some cheap DVDs... stupid me mentioned City Of God, Amores Perros, Water, Hyderabad Blues... only to receive the blankest of stares... then I asked for The Motorcyle Diaries, and the guy produced a XX soft porn movie titled something like 'The Diaries Of '... when I laughed and declined, he insisted that this is what I had in mind, and that The Motorcycle Diaries was a misrepresentation in my head... then he started on how I won't regret buying it... *yawn*

Lastly, quite a few shops in Pondy have huge boards screaming 'Cost Price Shop'... I wonder how they make any profit.

9 June 2006

Tobacco is injurious to your lungs.

The market in Dimapur rests on the rail tracks. Only a handful of trains ply on these tracks everyday, so they spread out their stuff out on the tracks, under the shade of the flyover and sit there till sunset... the polished rails make excellent seats for the cobblers, newspaper guys, corn sellers...

We visited Joy's friend - Michael's place for dinner. Paulo eats like a pig if the food is free. We had to beg her to spare the bones of the poor little fish she was devouring.

We made our way to Kohima, which reminded me a lot of Gangtok, Sikkim. The cost of living is surprisingly high for a town lost in a dim corner of the map, with an overland route to Dimapur being the only connection to the rest of the world. Liquor and cigarettes are officially banned in Nagaland, but it doesn't greatly affect the efforts to get intoxicated. Smuggled liquor and ciggies are present everywhere... in any case, chewing (and spitting) pan is legal... like they have a problem with people taking nicotine into their lungs, but mouth is different, it's OK. Absurd.

6 June 2006

The Meat Scene

We'd come this far, so we had to see the exotic meat scene on offer in this part of the country... so we found our way to the local market in Dimapur... for starters there were the usual stuff like pork legs, fish, chicken... then we found a bunch of dogs, with their mouths tied up and stuffed into gunny bags, stacked up in one corner... I turned around to look at big frogs, some five of them tied together at their feet and put in a little tub, with every frog trying to jump off in a different direction, the tub shook and wobbled... then we saw maggots, around 2-3 inches long, bright yellow and green in colour mostly... there were also brown fried maggots on offer adjacent to the colourful live ones, which will move just enough to cause nausea if you have a weak tummy... this was as far removed from my tambrahm roots (from my early years) in Mylapore as anything that I've experienced before.

A few days later in Kohima, we saw huge catfish and eels... the tubs are so cramped with the catfish and eels (separate tubs) that some of them manage to jump out on to the wet (open) market floor... so as we walked thru the narrow paths, we would suddenly find eels and catfish slithering on the floor... once in a while, someone would grab it and throw it back into the tub. Must be a sucky life.

30 May 2006

Return to firm Earth

We got off the train at Dimapur, at noon on the fourth day... felt weird standing on firm ground, without the scenery whizzing past... we foud a little place called Hotel Skylark... walking up the stairs late one night, I saw a woman clutching a towel wrapped around her, rushing from one room to another... and I watched the door shut... and there was a guy lying on the bed from the room she was coming from... he had a glass of water in his hands and the most content look in Dimapur that day. There is a little note in every room which says "You're not allowed to bring in women guests." Paulo's feminist sentiments were churned up.

Walking around the streets of Dimapur that evening felt weird.. it felt like a different country - a dangerous country. We invited weird stares, but soon got used to it.. the city shuts down by 6:30 - 7... so we were back at the hotel... I couldn't believe that we actually made it to Nagaland... seemed like a big joke during my college days... discovered that it's really quite developed.. oh, and I couldn't believe that Paulo actually chose to make the trip with two 'almost random people' (in her own words)... I can think of only one other girl (Maitreyi Mundo) who'd do it... requires real guts to step onto those alien streets, to accept those weird looks, get used to the random strangers as travel-companions, and still retain the open mind.

27 May 2006

The Great Optimist

Random conversation, only in India...

When does this train reach...?

Let's see, today is Thursday, so we have Friday, Saturday, Sunday... Sunday afternoon!

I always thought that anecdote was a big joke, only fit for discussion forums (like the one on the Lonely Planet website, which is where I picked it from)... 62 hours on Chennai-Dibrugarh Exp., from that beautiful Egmore station to Dimapur...

The train was like a little self-sustained community of sorts... people did everything any normal person would do at home... Joy, in his efforts to stay clean (I dunno why he even tries), used a chopped off water bottle to bathe in the train... I thought that was pretty crazy, till this guy took a full sized steel bucket, like the kind used to water gardens... Paulo didn't shit for 4 days... and didn't fart either... dunno how she does it... maybe she burps? ok sorry, that was gross.

Then one guy came along selling cameras and all kinds of digital gadgets... and a landline telephone... now I don't understand why anyone would buy a telephone on a train... like the steel-bucket dude, someone had to give me a bigger shock, so along came this guy selling a music keyboard... now, who on earth would... ok, I'll stop... I guess someone, somewhere has bought a keyboard and a telephone on a train, hence the optimism... I guess when people are sitting on a train for 4 days, with nothing much to do but stare at each other, they wouldn't exactly mind buying a telephone... the train must be a good place to advertise.

There was one guy selling lemon tea... he chanted 'lemucha' like it's the gayathri manthram... for some reason, everytime I listened to him, 'le-mucha' translated into 'the urine' in my head.

4 May 2006

The Longest Day.. & The Last Post

As we rode downhill from Kashmir, we passed thru the beautiful town of Udampur, which had some of the best roads that I've ever rode on... and by sunset, we were on the plains, entering Jammu... a bunch of obese cops stopped us, asked standard questions, and started a yawn-inducing lecture on The Adventures Of Two Daredevil Jammu Cops During Their Rebellious Youth... we rode in darkness from Jammu, on the beautiful NH-1, and arrived at Pathankhot by 10:30, and found a dingy little excuse for a room by 11.

Just as we were unloading the bike, some cops wanted to check our luggage and generally harrass us... I watched as he dug his hand into my bag and kept asking irritating questions... then Joy came up with the last of his master tricks for the trip... he walked up to him, and held out his ID card for his Human Rights course at the Indian Insti of Human Rights, Delhi... the cops were shitting bricks. They profusely apologised for the inconvenience, and wished us the most wonderful stay any tourist has ever had in Pathankhot.

We crashed like dead men, and woke up to the kind of unexpected gloom which leads to instant disorientation. The skies had transformed into dark grey overnight, and then, just as we started rolling for the day, it started pouring, like all the Gods chose to pee at the same time and place.

Gopal and I were on the Enfield, and followed the usual technique for riding in darkness, heavy rain... we'd closely follow a bus' tail-lamp, allowing the bus-driver to have the pleasure of dodging cows, stray dogs and humans... we couldn't turn around to see anything, because of the rain, and so we rode on, assuming that Joy wouldn't have a problem with riding on the dead flat, neatly laid NH-1... we didn't think much of the rain then.

I have to tell you about the Dhaba food on NH-1. It's simply the most delicious tandoori food that has ever gone down my throat. The best part is that the food doesn't saturate the tongue at all. Like I could never get sick of the taste, no matter how much I hogged. So I only stopped eating when Joy could spot some food at the top of my throat when I opened my mouth wide.

Anyway, there was no sign of Joy, and we thought he must've passed us with one of his mad overtaking maneuvers in the rain... so we rode on to reach Jalandhar by noon. And we get a call from some random number, and it's Joy. He said the bike got killed by the rain, and that he has no money on him, because his wallet is in my bag, on the enfield, and he's still close to Pathankhot, a good 70 kms back from where we were.

He sold off some petrol to get money to fix it, but the bike conked off for a second time, not too far down the road, but far enough to get him stranded in the middle of nowhere on that highway. So he pushed the bike for 2 kms and called us again, to tell us that we have to come back, that the mechanic has dismantled the engine completely... major problems, like the bike is in coma or something... we were irritated, depressed, angered... and a lot more. But we rode back 70 kms, in the rain... passing by the same scenery for a second time was painful, and the thought that we had to ride back the same way, killed what little energy we had. So Gopal and I cursed our hearts out for the first half an hour, and then we were just too tired and disoriented... we rode in silence... we didn't have to talk to know what's on the other's mind.

We reached Mukherian, where Joy was stranded, but standing outside a mechanic's shop with a big grin on his face... that's the only time I've ever felt like strangling him to death so badly. We screamed at him, while he screamed back at us, saying that we should've watched out for him, and ensured that he was following us... it was our mistake too, and it was hard to digest back then, in all the anger and madness... we should've watched out.

It took all of 20 ruppees to clean the carburettor. We rode back 70 kms in the rain, for 20 bucks. Funnily, I think if the bill had come up to 200 or something, we would've been happier that evening.

We rode back, this time being treated to a pretty sunset on NH-1... with the trees bordering the road glistening in the dampness, and the rain had let up for just a bit... somehow, thru all the shit, the soft yellow evening light brightened our moods, and for those 2 hours, we were really happy, like nothing ever went wrong that day.

Suddenly darkness engulfed us, and it started pouring again... the pulsar's electricals are so complicated that it's just looking for an excuse to have it's fuse blown up... and as we approached Jalandhar, there was a bright spark on the pulsar, and the engine died. The rain got worse, and we removed the fuse and rejoined the wires... and the pulsar was back alive... that ride was really painful. Darkness, countless headlamps making my eyes go blind, and the unforgiving rain... I don't know how we survived that period of madness, but we did... and arrived at Jalandhar late that night. Now the enfield chose to die, and we tried our hands at the carburettor, but it was not in any mood to obey us... so we pushed it for a kilometer, sometimes in knee-deep water, and ended up at this old, dusty, shady lodge... our room appeared like it had been locked up since Independence... dust everywhere, and there was dampness in the air, so it was a messy combo.

We opened our bags to see that, despite the tarpaulin sheets covering them, rain had found a way thru the small holes, and every single piece of clothing was wet. So we spread out all our clothes, all over that poor little room. I slept in my undies that night, cuddling under the bedspread to fight off the cold... but that's the beauty of fatigue... it helps overcome things like cold, dampness and dingy, dusty surroundings.

The next morning we woke up, praying for some dry weather... Gopal was adamant that we haul the bikes and ourselves onto some train heading to Delhi... he was thoroughly disoriented. So was I, but I chose not to show it because he did. We can't have everybody going down with the plan at the same time. So we egged him on to put in one last attempt... Joy was angry and I was disappointed with the idea of not riding back... because that would be like a huge blip on the adventure... the thought that nature actually got the better of us was unthinkable.

I cranked the enfield, with a silent prayer, and immeasurably thankfully, it came alive... and it stayed alive for the rest of the day. We rode mostly in silence that day... hogged the last of the dhaba food for the trip, and slowly things cheered up as we approached Delhi late that afternoon... we were back to our old crazy mood, joking and laughing... and I must say that the fresh, dry wind on our faces helped us more than we realise. Gopal cranked up and rode at 100 for a long stretch... and we felt good. Almost like the day we started out.

We reached Delhi that evening, and felt the drag of the traffic, but we were too excited to complain... we reached Gopal's room at Khatwaria Sarai, and parked the bikes and killed the engine, intoxicated with a sense of accomplishment. We did it.

Gopal's friend and roomie - Amrish, came home from work, and we couldn't stop talking about the trip... we showed him the photos on the handycam, and narrated as much as we could remember... the return to the real world is always weird. It hit us then, that we'd done something so outrageously brilliant. Three guys, with no real experience on bikes, not much money, or time to cushion our falls, going out and living a dream for 16 days... armed with nothing but an open mind and faith in ourselves... I can't count the number of times Joy, Gopal and I would've read thru the little box section in the Lonely Planet guidebook, about the Manali to Leh bike ride... how it always seemed like a magical dream... for some reason, it seemed so far away that we never thought of it as a dream worth pursuing beyond a point... and then it really happened! We couldn't believe it. I still can't.

After the trip, I got back home, to report to work... and worked for 8 months in a factory. Hated the four-walled confinements, the cubicle, the comp, the restricted thinking... and I wrote CAT, and now I'm off to IIM Indore. I quit and travelled to Madhya Pradesh, Varanasi, Calcutta, Trancquebar, Pichavaram and Varkala... now I'm off to Nagaland and Arunchal with Joy and another friend named Mridula... the last of my backpacking adventures for quite sometime... college starts on June 28th, and thats the last of my free air for another 2 years.

Gopal completed his course in Advertising & PR in Delhi, and came back to Madras... presently working as a Senior copywriter at Rediffusion... he's doing great, having all the fun and women he would want... getting pampered with countless office trips, where he stays in resorts, gets fed like a cow meant for slaughter, travels only in ac cabs on the road, routinely flies... he's getting really spoilt. He's afraid that the backpacker in him is slowly dying... but all he needs is another trip with Joy and me, and I'm sure he'll be back to normal... I don't believe some things can die completely. Rather, I hope...

Joy recently completed his Masters in Mass Communication... he's grown tired of chics, but not junk food... he's become serious about his career and future, but retains the madness and insanity that endears him to so many of his fans... he's seriously looking for a break of some form in photography... I'm sincerely praying that he doesn't get sucked into the normal world of formal shirts, pants and office cubicles... it would be the sad death of a creative brain.

We went to Gokarna for the year-end, with a bunch of other friends... once the three of us trekked up in the night, to get some booze before new year's eve... and for that one hour, it felt like Ladakh all over again... there is something about the way we hit it off... The Tender Trio. After the trip, Gopal and I inherited Joy's slang, and we started talking alike... so people started calling us 'The Twins'.

So that's the story of our Ladakh trip... there is so much more to it than what I've written and shown here... most of them would be boring and irrelevant to someone who hasn't experienced it... try doing the ride yourself, and you'll realise how much more there is to it... it's really unimaginably huge... changed us completely. Just do it. So yeah, that's about it... thanks for reading thru... wish us luck! :-)

3 May 2006

The War Zone

We were lazing around in the wooden slats outside the houseboat, when we met three Israeli travellers (2 guys and a girl) in the neighbouring place... Gopal spent the entire evening showing off and amazing them with his (extensive, I must say) knowledge of the Middle-East.

We were getting ready to ride out somewhere, when this 25~ yr old nephew of Shauk walked by... the three of us took turns to introduce ourselves... then he said - "Omar... I heard there's an Israeli chic in there... I've fucked every single Israeli girl who has stayed here!" The 3 of us exchanged blank looks, smiled at Omar and rode away.

We understood the meaning of 'heavily militarised' while in Srinagar... there is an army jawan posted once ever 30 meters, and a bunker every 100 meters... with sand bags, barbed wires and all that... if we pulled over by the side of the road, the nearest army jawans would rush towards us and ask us a dozen questions... suspicion is too light a word to describe the mood. In some places, one half of the road would be taken over by the army for setting up bunkers.

We felt like we were riding thru a war zone. One could see the toll taken by years of violence in the eyes of the people there. I don't know how people can say that Kashmir is returning to normalcy... I don't think any of the politicians who say that live in Kashmir. It's all too easy to sit in a Delhi fortress and talk crap.

Imagine being a jawan, standing by the side of the road all day... you've seen colleagues, who've stood next to you, being blown to smithereens by suicide bombers... and you don't know who's turn it is next... constant fear, for days, weeks and months together... I wonder what it does to their heads. I think it explains all the irrational behaviour in some of the jawans... like suicides and going on a shooting rampage, killing fellow army men. I bet it does permanent damage to their heads. When some of these people get killed, after all the shit that they go thru for the country, their families get peanuts. They go on protest outside India Gate, get some airtime on ndtv... but it's so depressing.

Majority of us would be scared to walk alone thru an unlit road late in the night... imagine living in a world characterised by perpetual fear of the unknown... and people call it return to normalcy. Bullshit.

I often wondered why we fight so hard for Kashmir, sacrificing so many lives and blowing up so much of our resources... then, when I went there and saw the place... no wonder they're fighting over it. It's so pretty! Everything is green, there are clean waterways running all over the place, the weather is just perfect, the mountain air is fresh and pure... there is beauty everywhere. We're just too soft... shouldn't have conceded anything in the first place... all the non-violence and peace diplomacy is crap. Our wartime leaders are never held responsible for plunging an entire state into violence and fear. Only Airports and Universities are named after them... I can't imagine how beautiful Kashmir would've been a hundred years back.

We lost our way in the streets of Srinagar... Joy went back immediately to the houseboat, while Gopal and I rode around for an hour... when we got back, we had more Omar talk to contend with... he bragged about how women go weak on their knees when he rolls out his charm... Gopal was evidently irritated with Omar's false claims to his Casanova throne... but he let it pass by, and Omar yapped on... and we yawned.

The Israeli hippies were a really nice bunch... the female had six-pacs neatly carved out on her abs... I've never seen a fitter female. She was really smart, funny and sweet. Omar got snubbed and humiliated, all laced with humor. One of the guys was intense, but humorous in a subtle way... the other guy was like Ian Wright on Lonely Planet... made us laugh so much. The common thread that I noticed, was their open mind, free and independent thinking, and living in the moment.

We had a nice chat that evening.. the Shauk's dad joined us, and we spoke about the changes in Kashmir over the years... his perspective was really different and eye-opening... he was deeply hurt that the army men don't trust anybody... not even people like him, who've been here for over half a century... he just wanted an end to the violence, and self-rule for Kashmir.

The next morning, the two Israeli guys, me and Gopal were on the boat (they're called shikaras) to see a floating vegetable market... Joy and the Israeli female were snoring in the warmth of the houseboat... sunrise was stunning... it's not like boating in Ooty or Kodaikanal... where they just dig up a large-sized round hole and pour some water and take us on a boat round and round till we get dizzy, faint and fall off... these are proper functional waterways... the vegetable market (wholesalers to retailers) was OK... it was different.

We were taken to Hasina's Honey Farm. She is the most dishonest businesswoman that I've ever met in my life. She sells flavoured honey... apple, lotus, almond, ganja, opium... she lets the bees out on a farm full of apple trees to get apple flavoured honey... like that. Anyway, she claimed that her honey has medicinal properties... and that between her various flavours, all ailments and diseases known to mankind can be cured... from backpain, diarrhoea and common cold to alzhemir's, cancer and aids... you name it, she had a honey to cure it. Poor docs are gonna become obsolete once her biz expands.

We went to the touristy Mughal Gardens the next day... hated the tourist crowd, and the neatly trimmed trees in the shape of dinos and elephands... it was too artificial for us. After all the natural beauty and wilderness, any form of man-made structure given to nature seemed ugly. So Gopal and I dozed off, while Joy wasted some tape shooting random objects for his doc film.

The next morning, we left Srinagar... on our way out, we were stopped by some random Sardar, who on seeing our backpacks, figured out that we were bikers heading for Jammu, and informed us that we were taking the wrong road... kindness of strangers.

As we rode on, we crossed the Jawahar tunnel, and had the company of countless army trucks and buses filled with army men going back home... then, around one bend, a signboard requested us to have one last look at the Kashmir valley... we did, and then we were off, determined to hit the plains of Punjab before sleep and fatigue conquered us for that night.

Nigeen Lake, Srinagar

10 April 2006

The Dishonest Deal Cutter

Sonamarg was our first pit-stop in the lush-green Kashmir valley. There we met a typical dishonest salesman trying to get us to stay in his houseboat in Srinagar. His introduction went like this "Hi, Im Shaukat. People call me Shauk. They find Shaukat to be too long!"

He pushed his houseboat deal aggressively, using all kinds of lies known to salesmen. He painted this picture of something close to a moonlit dinner outside the Taj Mahal and called it his houseboat experience.

Joy was irked that Shauk was trying to compete with him for the crown of most-dishonest-deal-cutter, so he pulled out one out of his bag of tricks.

Joy said "I have a party of 6 coming down from Canada next month... I need to find a good houseboat to suggest to them..." and just to add some more fuel to the fire, " they know nothing about Srinagar, so they need to be guided fully (they can be taken for a big ride with no real effort)... also, they're high-end tourists (lots of meat to be devoured)... so I was just thinking.. " and Shauk couldn't hide his excitement... he started promising more goodies in his houseboat, I guess the Taj Mahal analogy is only meant for deprived Indian travellers like us. Respect for us ragged, budget travellers had never been so good. While Shauk was licking his lips at the potential gold mine, we got a good deal, and Shauk even went wrong with simple addition to charge us some 150 less, even as he joked about how math and shauk aren't the best of friends.

We joked that Joy would write a best-selling book in the future, titled "How to rip a guy off... and make him feel good about it!"

We rode to Srinagar and while we were looking out for Shauk's dad to receive us on the road leading to Nigeen Lake, we were approached by this gentleman who seemed a little too eager to guide us to our houseboat. He took us to this houseboat claiming that he was shauk's brother. Then he proposed some deal which didn't match the one we'd struck with shauk. Over the next 20 mins his relationship with shauk went like this - "My own dear little brother... he's a close cousin... uncle... distant relative... friend... dishonest guy... cheat... he's a liar! fraud! don't listen to him!! come to me, for the best houseboats in the whole of Srinagar..."

We screamed at him, and found our way to Shauk's houseboat... while it wasn't exactly Taj Mahal's floating cousin, I must say that it was beautiful. The intricate wood work inside the houseboat looked majestic, and the room itself was nice and spacious. I was impressed to find a bathtub there, but I realised later that it didn't have a plug to shut the hole, so it was merely an oversized wash-basin.

As we came out and sat on the wooden slats which form the pathway to the houseboat, we got our first glimpse of the beauty of Srinagar's waters. We were to explore them more later, but it was a stunning first sight. Things were so relaxed over there that it's hard to believe that Srinagar is the heart of a massive terrorist battlefield. So we sat there, with our feet dangling above the water, excited at the prospect of exploring Srinagar.

14 March 2006

The Second Coldest Stat

We’d only heard of Drass as a militant-infested district of Kashmir. What we didn’t know was the fact that Drass is the second coldest inhabited place on earth. There is a signboard stating “Drass… 2nd coldest… -65 C… Jan 1995” welcoming us to the town. Joy spent an hour, filming and photographing the stat-board from all possible angles. I think that stat is going to be the highlight of his doc film. Given that Drass is not particularly high up, it’s hard to imagine that -40 C is common during the winters. The place has a gloomy look to it, with dark clouds hovering above and a certain dampness in the air at all times.

That was the last of the cold nights. We woke up early, and found that the bathroom had a glass window the size of a door. While the idea of having a good, panoramic view is appreciated, they forget that the view is two-way. Anyway, the view happened to be that of Tiger Hill – the strategic peak that India lost and recaptured during the Kargil War.

While at the cramped hotel in Drass, we met a Brit who suffered from a colonial hangover. He passed generalized nasty comments demeaning advertising professionals, which annoyed Gopal. He never missed an opportunity to point out how everything (eg : Royal Enfield) is from Briton and that nothing has changed after independence. We felt enraged and sincerely prayed that he meets with an accident, hopefully in some godforsaken place like that old abandoned road near Lamayuru.

Negative thoughts aside, fresh snow is a treat to the eyes. It looks like someone strewed fine white talcum dust from top. So, early next morning, as we rode on to Zojila pass, we ogled at the dark peaks capped with fresh snow. I remember mocking at the name Zojila during 8th class geography classes. Never did I dream that I’d land there someday. Being a damp day, we rode on slush and loose earth, but crossing Zojila (~13,000 ft) was a piece of cake compared to the high passes of Ladakh.

We halted at an army check post, and the wonderfully polite chaps invited us for tea. Hot chai in a steel tumbler was the perfect antidote to the numbing cold that had bothered us all morning. As we looked down at the valley, we saw thousands of little tents littered all over, for the Amarnath Yatra. The army guys were shocked that, having traveled so far, we didn’t intend to check out the Amarnath Yatra. Joy threw this don’t-you-know-I’m-interested-in-stats look, not making an effort to hide his disgust at the idea. I tried explaining how we’d been thru so much emptiness and sheer natural beauty in Ladakh, that we were really not interested in crowded places of religious interest. But my struggles with Hindi meant that Gopal had to come to my rescue and he mentioned some non-existing train, which we had to catch two days later.

As we rode downhill, the road improved rapidly, and before we knew it, the roads were 30-40 feet wide, neatly laid… and swarming with steely-eyed army jawans holding AK-47s. Welcome to Kashmir.

2 March 2006

Under Enemy Observation

Jammu & Kashmir can be divided into the Islamic east– Kashmir, and the Buddhist west– Ladakh. The little town of Mulbekh is the divide between the two halves. This is where Buddhism ends and Islam begins.

The next town on our path was Kargil. What is essentially a quiet, dreary village became synonymous with the war with Pakistan in 1999. The ultra-wide, neatly done road (there is usually just one road going thru these villages) contrasts sharply with the diminutive character of the village. It's funny how it took a full-scale war to spur development.

We could feel our proximity to the Line Of Control with Pakistan. Heavily armed guards are present on every road, bridge or any mentionable form of infrastructure. It took us 30 mins to get a chance to make phone calls from a public telephone – the place was swarming with army guys. Oh, and they hate cameras in these places.

Next up was the LoC. Those were some of the most amazing hours of the trip. Beas (or Sindh?) thundered right next to the road, and on the other side of the river was Pakistan – nay, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The road bisected the slopes studded with bunkers and artillery pointed skywards. There was an unmistakable air of aggression and tension.

Just to make us feel at ease, a signboard read "You are now under enemy observation". Notice the word 'enemy'. Not too far from here, we have guys who play cricket, meet up occasionally to boost the Indo-Pak bhai-bhai sentiment, develop feel-good Confidence-Building-Measures… bullshit! Hypocrisy is the name of the game… absolutely nobody has the balls to speak out the truth sans all the sugar-coating and diplomatic gas. The media feeds us deceptive stories and loads of lies that comfortably shield us from reality. Kids coming for surgeries, musicians, actors, cricketers, diplomats, politicians giving out well-rehearsed lines… it's all such a messy farce. The mutual distrust is thick in the air. Infiltration is clear and present, and it's a very real danger to our country. The fear and suspicion in the eyes of the army men is unmissable. How can we shamelessly accept these lies when our army men live and die in fear?

The worst part is that there isn't a hint of an end to the terror, and to the problem itself. Men are going to die, suffer deep mental scars due to the perpetual fear and suspicion, Pak Generals will be extended warm receptions and taken to the Taj Mahal, not long after orchestrating a bloody war which claimed thousands of lives, Indian Ministers will meekly cry at the need for an end to terrorist camps in Pak, shamelessly begging for some western power to help them clean their mess, cricketers will play series after series after series and hog media-space like they were building peace-bridges and laugh all the way to the bank… and people just sit back and watch on… oh, and where is my pop-corn?

25 February 2006

The Baby Factory

That was the scene for our tea-break... oh, and the tea only cost us 5 bucks each - no additional costs for the 'happening'-quotient of the place.

Towards the end of that evening ride to Lamayuru, which is a beautiful monastery-village in the middle of absolutely nowhere, having crossed nothing but one stray cow for 50 kms, we realized that we’d taken the old, abandoned road. We didn’t really mind the long route, it was just another excuse to ride on. The surrounding dark peaks looked like chocolate brownies, and the stratified layers of earth on the slopes kindled memories of those long-forgotten geography classes spent snoring away to glory… sedimentation and all that.

We crossed the first house of the village late that night, and suddenly there was the house-woman chasing us, announcing ‘100 ruppees for a room! Just 100 ruppees!” She actually ran behind us, begging for us to turn back and consider her offer for a room. That was 100 for 3 of us, and they even offered 3 different rooms for the 3 of us to make ourselves comfortable in. Joy was thrilled at the prospect of staying at a place for just 33.33 per head. It gave him a bigger kick than all the beauty that Ladakh could throw at him.

The House went from being the flourishing first tourist place on the old road, to the impoverished fag end of the new road to Lamayuru. It’s amazing how an infrastructure improvement like a new road can affect the lives of some people. The extreme poverty was instantly recognisable.

The Man of the House ran a baby factory. He had kids of all ages and sizes, and the economic compulsions to stop production didn’t seem to bother him much. The eldest of them was a really cute girl, not more than 10 yrs old. She practically did all the work, never once complaining or showing as much as a hint of a frown. Her dad just sat in one corner, smoking away, while her mum was perennially occupied in taking care of all the babies. We were deeply affected by the life of that little girl… such responsibility and maturity at such a young age. I felt really bad for all the kids. They didn’t make any of the choices that led to their state of poverty. They’re paying up for someone else’s irresponsibility. I don’t know if they will ever have an opportunity to get out of the rut, but I dearly hope there is a way out for these kids.

4 February 2006

The Nastiest Ride

The ride back from Panamik to Leh was one of the toughest of the entire trip.The intense heat from the sun melts the mountains of snow by the roadside, and by the time we reached there in the evening, the World's Highest Road had morphed into the World's Nastiest.

It was deja vu from our ride on the World's Second Highest Road... lack of energy, fatigue, beaten up bodies, icy water in the boots, stiff icy winds, piles of loose rock and a gushing stream on top to ride on... it was all that and worse. I can't quite explain how it felt. Disorientation is too soft a word. We shut everything out of our heads. It was just survival. We didn't think that we were on a trip, doing all these wonderful things... everything seemed trivial. The scenery whizzed past us like a blur. I only remember the soft yellow light from the setting sun reflecting off the surrounding snow slopes and giving us the most beautiful, softest natural yellow lighting imaginable.

This time, we didn't stop to feel the World's Highest Whatever, we didn't give out our widest grins to the camera - heck, we couldn't even hold a camera in our hands. Fingers, toes, cheeks, nose, ears - everything was frozen numb. We just wanted to reach Leh. Alive. Nothing else mattered. There could've been a fortune lying nearby, or the hottest babe on earth parked by the side of the road, and we couldn't have cared less. We had our horse-blinds on.

When we reached the first army camp on the climb down from Khardung La, we didn't need to think before barging into the canteen. Our instincts completely over-ruled our minds that evening. The warmth inside that four-walled confinement cannot be explained. It was the warmest warmth we had ever experienced. We didn't keep count of the number of parathas, omelets and chais we downed... Joy was extremely displeased when he was served an omelet when he'd asked for a half-boil (a.k.a bull's eye). We were just grateful that someone is nice enough to feed us at 18,000 ft., but Joy is so used to blemishless customer-service in the tea-shops in Aynavaram and Vikkivakkam that he couldn't hide his irritation with the omelet. He held it as if it were a dead rat and said "If he doesn't have the knowledge to make a half-boil, he should admit it! How can he do this to me?" For Gopal and me, it was just an excuse to down another omelet. Joy never ate anything that day. I think he has enough reserves of everything to hibernate through a Siberian winter.

So we rode on, engulfed by pitch darkess, with only our headlamps glowing for as far as our eyes could see. I'll never forget that ride. I sat tight behind Joy, holding on to dear life as he showed off his dare-devil night-riding skills.I think he felt like he was riding a bike in some video game... he'd push the limits, take sharp, reckless turns... like if something went wrong, he could press 'Esc' and select 'New Game' or 'Restart'. During one of the innumerous bends, Joy slanted the bike so hard that the enfield's foot-rest hit the road and the bike jerked violently... madness. I bet if anything had gone wrong that night, we'd have been pretty darn close to The End.

But we survived to tell the story... and reached Leh late that night. After much struggle, we found a decent room, ate like we'd not seen food for a week and crashed like we'd not slept since we were born. We were just happy to be alive, and fortunate for all the little things that made the trip happen. We're just lucky. We don't even realise how much.

8 January 2006

Kids remain kids.

After our organic food-fest at Hunder, we paid a visit to a gompa (monastery) at this nearby village called Diskit. The highlight of this monastery is the carefully preserved fore-arm of some ancient Mongol invader who was slayed in that Gompa.

Joy spent half a video-tape filming that monastery. I think it's going to be the highlight of his documentary film. I bet he got every deity covered in every possible angle... he stopped short of thrusting the handycam on the monk's face, demanding a juicy interview. Oh, and I bet he's learning about the preserved arm from this blog.

We rode along to Panamik, which is the northernmost village in India. We went as far north as civilians are allowed to go in this beautiful country. Felt weird when we turned around to head back south. The Siachen glacier was less than 50 kms away. I wish I could go there one day to experience life on the world's highest battlefield. Anyway, I was reminded of Tom Hanks in the movie Forrest Gump... when he reaches the ocean, he turns around and runs to wherever his legs take him. So anyway, that's what we did- we turned around and started our journey back.

While we were there, we met a lot of local kids, waiting for their bus back home from school. There were a bunch of them climbing a tree and playing around... they posed happily for the camera. There was genuine happiness in their eyes. The kids didn't carry backpacks half their own weight, or attend maddening tution classes after school hours like their city-dwelling counterparts. They still played around, with all their innocence intact, growing up nice and slowly, enjoying life to the fullest when it's most fun. I compared that to my crazy school-life in Madras where childhood is ruined by pressure, expectations and maddening constraints imposed on the young minds. Why can't we just let the kids be kids?