Friday, December 30, 2011

Worth its salt!

My two small feet stepped on a land unlike any other on the face of this planet. It could have been snow. It was cold enough for it to snow. Temperatures in winter did drop below zero degrees. I surveyed the landscape around me. All white! I picked up a pinch of it. Small crytals of white with brown mud. And then I did the unthinkable - I tasted it. Salt! I spat out.

The white Rann of the Greater Rann of Kachchh near Dhordo (yes, that's the official spelling and not the very common Kutch) is as close to moonscape you can get on earth. Dry, barren, isolated, it's over a three-and-a-half hour tiring drive through open scrub that offer little to stimulate the senses from Gandhidham (two hours from Bhuj, the largest city in Kachchh). The BSF guards flag down all vehicles. "No plastics allowed beyond this point." We handed our plastic bottles over to him. He simply tossed them behind.

We made our way through the brown mudflats following the treads of tyres that have been taking the same course. At the far horizon, we thought we saw waves lapping up the sand, not unlike the view at Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai. Or was it a mirage? We had barely been into the desert for about five minutes. Sure we couldn't be seeing mirages. But we were. The car came to a stop near the parking area. From there we could see sands of two colours - brown, where we had parked and white, where we were headed to on foot.

The wild asses are native to the Little Rann of Kachchh

There were no birds, no wild asses (khur) and just one camel cart. It was two in the afternoon. I tugged my jacket close to my chest to beat the chill in the air. I have never felt as exposed to the elements as I was on that day. Nothing could camouflage my existence. It was eerie and breathtaking at the same time.  

Also read Love Across the Salt Desert by K N Daruwalla   

Resolutions 2012

Thursday, December 29, 2011

What do you do when doctors say they can't do anything?

A dear friend's father has been lying in a hospital bed in a comatose state for the past 72 hours. A Parkinson's patient, he fell when the wheelchair he was sitting in turned over. He hasn't responded since. There has been no external injury but the CT scan shows cerebral haemorrhages and clots. His chances are slim, but he is breathing and that too, deeply. He moves his toes sometimes and his body is warm even in the cool environment of the ICU. They're feeding him through a tube, like they have been doing since August. It's a situation no doctor wants to be in. They say they can't do anything. Surgery is ruled out because of his age and the advanced state of his disease. His family, much as they love him, don't want him to suffer anymore. All they can do is wait, like the doctor told them to do: "It is only a matter of time." But time has no limit. And the body doesn't give up easily. And neither can we, our loved ones. So taking one step at a time, one day at a time may help. A slight twitch here, a movement there for a patient at this stage is the equivalent of making a mark on the moon. It may not sum up to anything but it is still there and just that knowledge is comforting and we may take better care of him. Sometimes, it is better to aim for a 10 per cent recovery than to give up hope altogether. At least he will go with a subconscious feeling of being looked after when his days were numbered.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bol: Of blind faith and a few words

A hakim (traditional medicine-man) opens the Quran to a particular page and shuts his eyes as his index finger hovers over the page. It comes to rest after a few seconds. The hakim opens his eyes reads the line his finger points to and closes the holy book. This is how he takes his decisions -- of whether he should kill his transgender child or  not or if he should go against his conscience and enter into a second marriage with a tawaif (erstwhile courtesan, now often synonymous with a commercial sex worker) and make some money by secretly parenting a girl child. I have not come across a film where blind faith has been depicted so subtly, yet so powerfully.  

And that is why Shoaib Mansoor's film, Bol, is a must-watch. I loved his Khuda Kay Liye for the differences between culture and religion it brought out. I liked Bol because it celebrates the spirit of women, even when their circumstances are the most unfortunate. 

Set in Lahore, the story revolves around an extremely conservative hakim (Manzar Sehbai plays the character to a T), who, in his quest for a male child, has fathered 14 children. As the only earning member of the large family, he forces on his seven surviving daughters a life full of restrictions and denial, to keep them under his control. Gradually, his divorced eldest daughter, Zainub, starts questioning his decisions and beliefs. Unable to form the words to answer her queries, he resorts to violence, but that only makes her bolder. To escape the jabs of his conscience, he seeks refuge in religion. But he follows faith blindly, choosing only what he wishes to know and read and that slowly destroys his family, his honour and him. 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Bol, which means words in Urdu, relays more than just the story. Go, watch it now.

A question...

Would you like to own a unique watch crafted by a watchmaker specially for you and that would cost you a few thousand rupees or would you want a watch that cost one crore rupees with the knowledge that 75 people in the world would be wearing the same thing?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Politically Incorrect

Book Review: The Moghul

Author: Thomas Hoover
Publisher: Fireship Press
Pages: 608
Price: Rs 1,308 (for the Imported Edition); free on Kindle

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Friday, December 16, 2011 at 02:50:23 PM

The small naval Battle of Swally that took place on November 29-30 in 1612, off the coast of Suvali, a village near Surat in Gujarat, is the little-known event that turned the course of Indian history. The victory of four English East India Company galleons (multi-decked sailing ships) over four Portuguese ships and 26 barks (unarmed rowing vessels) paved the way for British dominance over South Asian trade and gradually the colonisation of India.

By drawing from the diaries of the early English tradesmen who came to India aboard ships, braving such Portuguese attacks, Thomas Hoover has crafted an intriguing tale of an envoy of the English East India Company whose goal is to get a permit for trade from the Mughal Emperor in India and wrench the control of the trade in the Indian Ocean from the Portuguese. The protagonist of the story is Captain Brian Hawksworth, whose experiences in this mystical land are based on the true accounts of William Hawkins, the first envoy of the English East India Company who sailed to the port of Surat in 1608 and of Thomas Roe, who, as ambassador of King James I to Emperor Jehangir's court, obtained permission for the company to set up factories in Surat and get their toe-hold into India.

As Hawkworth makes his way from Surat to the Moghul's court in Agra, he discovers a country of contrasts, where the sword is revered and so is the pen, where men of valour wear jewels and perfumes and build monuments dedicated to love, where delicate noblewomen plot against powerful heirs to the throne, where caste and religious prejudices run deeper than bonds of love and friendship and where passion is nurtured and repressed. As he absorbs the customs and manners of India, the rough English seaman veers away from his commercial interests and begins a new quest for sensuality in music and the love of his life.

The fictional characters of the opium-addicted Arangbar, the wronged heir, Jadar, the great Akman, the scheming Jahanara and the clever prime minister Nadir Shah in The Moghul are loosely based on Jehangir, Shah Jahan, Akbar and Nur Jahan and her brother Asaf Khan. Travellers and writers from the West are often intrigued by Indian politics. Hoover is no different. He layers the text with multiple sub-plots, adding new characters to the ensemble cast, much like a rich and colourful tiered cake. You have to cut it, bit by bit, layer by layer, so that you can finish it off. And that requires patience. But if you love historical fiction, this tale of blood and lust, love and war, music and poetry and commerce and politics is a must-read.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

On Design

Creativity in print journalism is often limited to a set of good headlines and great page layouts. As journalists, we observe life so closely, scrutinizing its various flaws, that we rarely get a chance to step back and appreciate the beauty of the processes that make life, life. I am extremely honoured by the opportunity the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, had given me to look at design from a different perspective — from the point of view of the process, and not the product; as a means and not the end.

Such had been the journey of compiling Young Designers 2011, an endeavour to present the works of 222 budding designers from 17 different disciplines. The range of areas of design their projects have covered reflects the growing need for design interventions in diverse sectors of industry all over the world. Going through the sheer body of the work that the students have produced has been a process of learning for me, as much as it had been for them when they had tried to express their ideas through words and form.

That design could be an aesthetic, a form, a function, an experience or all of them put together, was something I was earlier not aware of. While editing the publication, I learnt that design solutions could be presented in forms as varied as documentaries, films, products, processes and services. It just points out to how little, we, as lay people, know and understand of design. Seldom do we realize that design is everywhere. It is both an art and a science. It could be in philosophy as well as in practice. It could be a method and a solution. And it could be both a process of creation and destruction, as we see in Mother Nature, who is, by far, the best designer in the world.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The viral Kolaveri Di video

Of cats, apes, crocs and sting-rays

With its dense tropical rainforest, the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, is every animal lover's paradise

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Tuesday, December 06, 2011 at 12:40:39 PM

Cat Monument in Kuching

The capital of Sarawak is Kuching. According to one local legend, James Brooke (the first White Rajah of Sarawak) pointed towards the settlement across the Sarawak River and enquired about its name. The person he asked thought Brooke was pointing towards a passing cat, which in Bahasa Melayu (the Malay language) is called Kuching. Another theory suggests the town may have originally been known as Cochin, a word for port commonly used across India and Indochina. The most popular theory is that the town is named after a tidal stream called Kuching River, which originated from Cat's Eye Hill (Bukit Mata Kuching) where there was an abundance of a local fruit called Green Longan, vernacularly known as Cat's Eye (Mata Kuching). Little wonder that the furry animals are ubiquitous here -- on the streets, inside stores and even in the lobbies of five-star resorts! Kuching is also the only place in the world where you will find a cat museum.

Monkey business
It's time for breakfast at the Semenggoh Nature Reserve
Borneo, the world’s third largest island, is home to the ‘old men of the forest’, the orangutans. Situated 24 km from Kuching is the Semenggoh Nature Reserve which was established in 1975 to rehabilitate orangutans that were injured, orphaned or rescued from captivity. The 1613-acre dipterocarp forest is currently home to 26 semi-wild orangutans of various ages. You may enjoy observing their antics during the feeding times (9 am and 3 pm) as long as you keep a distance of 20 feet between them and yourself and not attempt to tease, feed or touch them. The other attractions include an arboretum, an orchard and a botanical garden. Borneo is also home to the rare proboscis monkey, long-tailed macaques and leaf monkeys, which may be sighted at the spectacular Bako National Park, which is about 1.5 hours away from Kuching (that includes a 45-minute drive and a 45-minute ferry-ride).

Baby crocs at Jong's Crocodile Farm
Get croc-king!
Along the Kuching-Serian highway about 29 km from Kuching, is Jong’s Crocodile Farm and Zoo. With over 2,000 crocodiles (both saltwater and freshwater varieties) that have been bred in captivity, Jong’s is the first and largest captive breeding crocodile farm in Malaysia. The gaping reptiles, their powerful, lashing tails and cold, menacing eyes make for great photographs. The crocodiles are fed whole defeathered chickens daily at 11 am and 3 pm and those are the best times to catch them in action. A Jong’s farm-hand ties the chickens to a rope above a crocodile pond. The giant reptiles ‘stalk’ the ‘chickens’ and jump several feet above water to clamp their ‘prey’ between their powerful jaws. The farm also has a museum which houses the skull of Bujang Senang, the notorious man-eating crocodile that went on a rampage in the Sri Aman area in 1993. There is also a souvenir shop which sells crocodile soft toys and leather products. 

Damai Beach
Watch who you swim with
Sarawak’s most popular and scenic beach, Damai is located on the Santubong peninsula and is a 45-minute drive from Kuching. You can engage in water sports such as jet-skiing and windsurfing or relax on the white sandy beach and enjoy sighting a variety of birds such as sandpipers, egrets, terns, collared kingfisher, the white-bellied Sea Eagle and Brahminy Kites. Be careful while swimming especially because this region of the South China Sea is known for some of the deadliest jellyfish and sting-rays. The Damai Beach Resort also offers a two-hour trek through the rainforest to the Mount Santubong.
Mount Santubong

An Iban musician playing the Sape in Kuching
According to a legend, the mountain is associated with two beautiful princesses, Santubong and Sejinjang. Santubong was an expert weaver while Sejinjang was an excellent rice thresher. One day, they quarrelled and exchanged blows. Sejinjang swung her thresher which hit Santubong's cheek. Santubong threw her weaver at Sejinjang, hitting her head. The King of Heaven put an end to the quarrel by cursing them and turning them into mountains. Santubong turned into Mount Santubong while Sejinjang became Mount Sejinjang. It is said that Mount Santubong resembles a woman lying on her back.

Getting there
Kuching is well-connected by air to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. To travel from Kuching to various reserves and sanctuaries, you have to rely a lot on taxis and hotel shuttles, which are expensive. Bargain hard with taxi drivers.Buses are cheap but do not often stick to time-tables.

(All pics by Rachit Mankad)

Just Another Black Day...

Rachit's rendition of Aahatein by Agni

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The little things that make me smile...

  •  The sight of dew on a green leaf
  • The sight of my husband
  • A paycheck, no matter how small is the amount that it mentions
  • Watching mom clap as she discovers something new on Facebook
  • A new shoot sprouting from a seed
  • A dog
  • Chocolate
  • A romantic film with very gorgeous actors
  • Granny's wrinkles when she smiles
  • Turning into her walking-stick
  •  The smell of Kebabs
  • A drive to nowhere
  • Spotting a new bird/animal
  • The sight of a water body
  • Watching someone else smile
  • Writing
  • Gossipping with a friend on GTalk 
  • Looking at old pictures
  • A walk on the riverfront/seafront
  • Sunset
  • A new dance step
  • Music
  • Memory
  • Acquiring a book I've been waiting to read for long
  • A task well done and well-appreciated
  • Learning a secret
  • Feeling the wind through my hair

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

One cold December night...

One cold December night in 2009, I woke up in the middle of a forest in Dang in south Gujarat at 4 am. My roommates, who were then my students, were fast asleep, tucked in many layers of cloth. It took me a while to leave my warm bed. It must have been some 4°C. I walked out of the tent. It was quiet. No crickets. I looked up... to find only a crescent of the moon. I walked towards the remnants of the bonfire we had the night before. And then I did the unthinkable. I stood on top of the glowing embers. Of course, I had my shoes on. But still! I am scared of fire. I think twice before lighting a match. But I stood there. I looked around to see if there were any other early-risers. Ravi, my 48-year-old student was an armyman on study-leave. Soon, he would be out for a walk. I had little time. I stayed put and looked up. My ears were alert, as they tried to pick up the slightest sound - of students snoring, of leaves rustling, of the burnt twigs that were being crushed under my feet. I turned my cold face to the darkest part of the forest. And with that, I confronted my worst nightmare - that I would be all alone in the middle of a dense dark forest and would slowly be engulfed by it. And sure I was. The forest grew on me. I was scared. The line between imagination and reality was blurred. But I stood... for a full 15 minutes, before Ravi came out for a walk. I did that everyday. And I was in Dang for a week. It gave me an adrenaline rush - something people experience while bungee jumping. I wrote many pieces on Dang after that, many travelogues that were interesting and well-appreciated. There were many experiences we had had as a group. But the memory that I cherish most is that of the cold December night when I stood with fire in the middle of darkness to face fear, all by myself.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Headhunting in Borneo

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 02:34:16 PM

Iban skulls at a Bidayuh longhouse 

“And there, up there, above the rest of the people, is where the witch-doctor or shaman stays.” We look in the direction Reno’s finger points to. Our guide-cum-driver then excitedly climbs up the rickety bamboo-and-wood staircase. We gingerly follow him into a dark room. It’s empty. Reno moves to the centre of the room and points to a cage. We had expected some treasure — old herbs, antimony, gold dust, anything. But, skulls? Human skulls!

Reno smiles triumphantly. This is what most tourists, mainly from Australia and mainland Malaysia, come to the Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse for; this and the Annah Rais hot-spring in the hills nearby. We take a closer look at the skulls, the cage and the new stainless steel lock that keeps the contents ‘safe’. “These were Iban warriors,” Reno reveals.

In Malaysia's largest state, Sarawak, the Dayak Ibans comprise nearly 34 per cent of the population. While the Ibans today are a generous, hospitable and placid people, the tribe has a long history as pirates and fishermen. The fierce warriors were reputed to be the most formidable headhunters on the island of Borneo.
Reno says, “The Ibans and Bidayuh's are historical enemies. The Bidayuhs were the first tribe to come to Sarawak in 1380 from Kalimantan in south Borneo (which is now part of Indonesia). They were peace-loving people and settled here into agrarian communities and built their longhouses. The Ibans followed them. They would always look out for a fight with the Bidayuhs and raid the latter’s villages.” It would inevitably result in war. Men on both sides would be killed and their heads would be taken by their enemies as trophies. The women and children of the ‘enemy tribe’ were taken as slaves.

Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse
The victorious warriors would bring the heads to the shaman. The skulls would be carved out and engraved on and then washed with coconut water. The coconut water was believed to be potent and would be passed around to the warriors, for them to drink. It would then be distributed to the villagers, who would sprinkle it into the ground before they started sowing the seeds for the next season's crops.

A 73-year-old (even I couldn't believe that she was that old) Bidayuh woman making a basket. The traditional  rattan weed is slowly giving way to more durable but ecologically harmful plastic. Besides baskets and cloth, the Bidayuh are also known for their wood-bark products such as purses and mobile phone covers

We step out of the shaman’s house into the common space that makes the communal space of the stitled, windowless, longhouse, which is not unlike the long corridor of a chawl in Dadar in Mumbai. Life seems normal here. The women weave the rattan (Java weed) mats and baskets that the Bidayuh’s are famous for. Others wash tapioca roots and leave the leaves to dry in the sun. These will be later used to flavour rice which will be cooked in bamboo over a woodfire. Cats and the Kampung (village) children lay sprawled across the bamboo flooring. We pick up strains of Hindi film music that is playing on a TV channel.  A middle-aged woman offers us a glass of tuak or rice wine (RM 20 for a bottle) while Reno chats her up. She talks freely because he belongs to her tribe.

Cocoa in their backyard!
The practice of headhunting is banned by the three countries which govern Borneo – Indonesia, the Kingdom of Brunei and Malaysia. Relics, in the forms of bones and exquisitely carved human skulls are found in museums such as the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore and in antique shops all across South East Asia. The Ibans and the Bidayuhs have ‘settled down’ into other occupations. Reno notes that the inherent aggressive streak the Ibans have, has turned some of them into Sarawak's most successful businessmen. The Bidayuhs, on the other hand, take up jobs as professionals or in the government service. Most of the tribes in Sarawak now follow Christianity. But, the shamans still exist and so do their beliefs in the powers the skulls possess.

Getting there: The Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse is a 1.5 hour-drive away from Sarawak's capital, Kuching. Taxis and shuttles are available from outside the Grand Margherita Hotel and may cost you about RM 150 (1RM = INR 15 approx) per head. Buses are cheaper but difficult to come by. Kuching is well-connected by air to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Book Review: Poverty to Empowerment

Author: Indira Dutta
Publisher: Allied Publishers Pvt Ltd
Pages: 149
Price: Rs 485

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 12:49:18 PM 
When the Planning Commission pegged the poverty in India’s urban areas at Rs 32 per capita per day, it drew flak from several quarters, including members of the civil society and social activists who termed it as a “cruel joke”. That India’s millions still live in a state of abject poverty, in spite of being ‘part’ of the second-fastest growing economy in the world, is a well-known fact. But to determine how poor the poor really are and what can be done to make them less poor, is something that has baffled even some of the world’s best economists.  

In her book, Poverty to Empowerment, academician Indira Dutta takes you through the various causes of poverty in India, how it has been measured over the years and the steps various successive governments have taken to alleviate poverty. She analyses various growth theories of spatial planning which have been propounded by various economists and scholars from time to time. Dutta has devoted many pages in the book to the objectives of various poverty alleviation programmes that have been initiated by the Indian government such as Drought Prone Areas Programme, Integrated Rural Development Programme, National Rural Employment Programme, Valmiki Ambedkar Awas Yojana, Swarnjayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Bharat Nirman and even Aadhar

The author does well to establish the link between Hinduism and poverty and gender and poverty and describe the convergence of urban and rural poverty. In order to break the monotony of text, she has included tables of quantitative data to make it easier for the reader to comprehend, correlate and conclude. However, it is her generalised conclusion, “India has faced deep rooted social and economic inequities for centuries. We cannot blindly follow the capitalistic model of economic growth that puts reliance on market forces. The actors of development — state, market and civil society, all have to work together to bring a synergetic solution to developmental problem,” that comes as a disappointment.

If you're looking for stories about the wretchedness of India’s poor, which will tug at your heart-strings, this book is not for you. It is only a step towards understanding why poverty in India hasn’t substantially gone down with its increase in economic growth. While Dutta tries hard to make a complex subject simple, she tends to oversimplify in many cases and risks being superficial. She also presumes that the reader would be familiar with the theories of scholars such as Water Christaller, Johann Heinrich von Thünen, F Perroux, J R Boudeville and Auguste Lösch, and does not explain their backgrounds when she cites them. If you do not know much about economics, it can put you off, that is, if you are not already done in by the poor editing. 

However, if you’re a student of economics or someone who wants to know the simple facts about the complex issue called poverty, Poverty to Empowerment may well work for you. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Bollywood Calling!

Published in the Economic Times on October 3, 2011
The FrankfurtRheinMain region in Germany could be a veritable treasure trove for Bollywood shooting location hunters, says Eisha Sarkar 
 Located in the heart of the country on the banks of the River Main and with the third busiest airport in Europe, Frankfurt is the commercial hub of Germany. With its excellent infrastructure, educational institutions, futuristic skyline and fantastic connectivity, Frankfurt has wooed a large number of students, pharmaceutical, biotech and clean-tech firms, financial institutions and IT companies from all over the world. And now, it's Bollywood's turn.
    "Since 2005 there is a 'Bollywood film tradition' at the Bergstrasse region of FrankfurtRheinMain (named
after the city of Frankfurt and the rivers Rhine and Main). Indian films such as Humraah-The Traitor and the Himesh Reshammiyastarrer Aap Kaa Surroor have been shot in the region," says Disha Shah, India
representative - FrankfurtRheinMain GmbH. The company actively markets the ‘numerous strengths’ of the FrankfurtRhein-Main region that stretches over parts of three states - Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate and Bavaria - as well as
the cities of Frankfurt am Main, Wiesbaden, Offenbach, Mainz, Darmstadt and Aschaffenburg.
    With a beautiful skyline, historical buildings, romantic vineyards, picturesque settings and rivers, the region has much to offer to Indian filmmakers who are constantly looking for unusual backdrops for colourful songand-dance sequences in their films. Shah notes, "The fact that the
region is compact and locations with different settings can be reached easily and in a very short span of time, makes the logistics part easier." That's something Indian filmmakers will look out for. Frankfurt is also the European centre for digital image processing and visual effects. Local post-production companies process all types of films, from advertising to animation to blockbusters. A large number of sound studios are available for professional music compositions and audio productions. Agencies such as the Indo-German Film Agency at Wirtschaftsförderung Bergstrasse, the regional business development agency, actively support Indian producers with location search, assistance with necessary permissions and also organise free location tours in the region. For Aap Ka Surroor, they even arranged to fly in autorickshaws from India for a sequence that required them to chase a BMW Mini in front of the Alte Oper music theatre in Frankfurt!
    While earlier, DVDs of Bollywood films (especially those of Shah Rukh Khan's) were sold in the markets in areas populated mainly by South Asians (there are 6,000 Indians in Frankfurt), now there are a growing number of cinema halls and television channels that screen Indian films. Also, by regularly participating at the Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival), Indian filmmakers have aroused the curiosity of German producers who are now seeking collaboration with their Indian counterparts. The FrankfurtRheinMain GmbH International Marketing of the Region is even sending a delegation to participate at the International Film Festival of India in Goa in November this year, to promote the region among Indian filmmakers.
    Co-operation between Indian and German filmmakers is not a new phenomenon. It dates back to 1925 when Indian solicitor Himansu Rai met German filmmaker Franz Osten in Munich and brought him over to the erstwhile Bombay to shoot Prem Sanyas - Die Leuchte Asiens-The Light of Asia. Rai, one of the pioneers of Indian cinema, later founded the Bombay Talkies studio. The current generation of Indian filmmakers, who are willing to explore new media and newer locations by cutting through cultural barriers, will once again be instrumental in forging closer celluloid ties with Germany.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The high road to inner peace

By Eisha Sarkar
Published in Youth Incorporated Vol 1, Issue 2 1st August, 2011

Spiti and Lahaul

“You will find people everywhere from all over the world. This is peak season,” taxi driver M Javed tells us, as we look at the train of cars behind us - a traffic jam in the middle of Manali. Now, how’s that for a vacation?

Tired after an eight-hour ride from Chandigarh, we stagger into the Apple Country Hotel’s lobby. Since all the deluxe rooms are occupied by tourists from Punjab and Delhi, we’re offered the honeymoon suite at Rs. 5,500 a night which provides a cosy bed and a fantastic view of deodar and pine forests on the Himalayan slopes.

With a mild summer and an altitude of 2050 metres, Manali is Himachal Pradesh’s adventure sports’ capital and sees throngs of tourists come here for paragliding, rock-climbing, rapelling, trekking, white-water rafting on the rapids of the River Beas, and even skiing. These sports are expensive and we have to bargain hard to pay Rs. 1,800 per head for a 20-minute paragliding trip down the Solang Nullah and Rs. 3,500 a couple for the rafting.

To get away from the hustle-bustle of Manali, we plan a two-day trip to Keylong in the Lahaul and Spiti district about 120 km from the Indo-Tibet border. The hotel receptionist suggests we leave early. “Since the Rohtang pass is closed every Tuesday, all tourists will be going there on Wednesday morning to enjoy the snow. The earlier you leave, the better will be your chance to avoid the traffic-jam,” he says. We stumble to the car at 4 am, groggy, both because of the lack of sleep and oxygen. To our dismay, we aren’t the only ones up early. Convoys of jeeps, Toyotas, four-wheel drives, Scorpios, private cars, and motorbikes race against each other on the Manali-Leh National Highway 21. Some stop at roadside shacks to hire snow-gear and skis.

Spiti and Lahaul  
We wind our way up the Pir Panjal Mountains to find ourselves at the rear of a 3 km-traffic jam all the way up to the Rohtang La, which in Tibetan means ‘a pile of corpses’. It is 6 am and the temperature outside is 10°C. We leave our bags in the taxi and start to walk past the gleaming mica schist and snow walls. Glacial melt has turned the mud-track into sludge, making it difficult for cars to pass through. Some trucks have been waiting here for eight hours. Were it not for the breathtaking views of the snow-capped peaks, waterfalls, and the coniferous forests below, this would have been an ordeal. It takes us three hours to cover 5 km, after which the 64 km winding road from Rohtang to Keylong is bumpy but free of traffic. Lahaul and Spiti lie on the leeward slopes of the mountains, their tundra meadows broken only by waterfalls.

We take a break at Koksar for some mutton momos and chai. Our next stop is Tandi where we refuel, for the next petrol pump is 365 km away. About 8 km from Keylong, Tandi is also the point where the rivers Chandra and Bhaga meet to form the Chandrabhaga and later, the Chenab. From there, we make our way to Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation’s (HPTDC) The Chandrabhaga Hotel, which overlooks Keylong town. At Rs. 1,800 a night, it offers basic accomodation and a restaurant with a limited range of North Indian cuisine and is a stopover for tourists on their way to Leh (359 km), Suraj tal and Deepak tal lakes (approximately 65 km) and Udaipur-Triloknath Temple (about 43 km).

The administrative centre of the district, Keylong has a Hanuman Temple, a post office, a State Bank of India ATM, a German Bakery that sells croissants and yak cheese, and shops which stock biscuits, dry fruits and bottled water. There is also a mechanic who keeps bikes for hire – Bajaj Pulsar for Rs. 1,500 a day, and a Royal Enfield for Rs. 2,500 upwards. There is also the Cafe Nordaling, which overlooks the mountains and where you can have a delicious steaming veg and chicken momos for Rs.100 a plate.

Spiti and Lahaul 

There are three Buddhist monasteries near Keylong. The largest is Shasur Monastery, just 4 km away. Then there is Kardang Monastery of the Drukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism on a slope across the Bhaga River and the remote Thayul monastery, which is a 3 km hike up the mountain from the helipad at Stingiri, 3 km away.
After a two-hour hike up the steep slope from Stingiri village, our sunburned faces light up at the sight of the beautiful Thayul Gompa that houses a huge statue of Guru Padmasambhava, the Lotus Born, who introduced Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet in the eighth century; and behgan the library of Kangyur (the actual words of the Buddha) with literature in the local Boti language. Few locals come here. Caretaker Chomo Ang-moh says, “Our Rinpoche from Bhutan came here only once, a few years ago. Lamas from Dharamsala have not yet come here since there is no road.”

Sitting there on the Gompa’s steps amidst snow-capped mountains, basking in the sun, we find an opportunity to introspect, to meditate, and to be one with nature. Here, we finally find peace.

What you must know:

  • The mountain pass opens only from June to November and is closed on Tuesdays. So plan your travels to Leh and Keylong accordingly.
  • Taxis are available from Chandigarh, Delhi and Manali. Bargain hard - for around 1,500 km, taxis charge Rs. 28,000
  • Most restaurants, adventure sports’ clubs, guides, and taxis take only cash.
  • ATMs, like public toilets, are scarce once you’re out of Manali.
  • Carry enough water. Bottled water rates vary from Rs. 20-25 for a litre.

What you must carry:

  • Sunscreen (SPF 50 and above)
  • Woollens, raingear, and trekking clothes
  • Hand-sanitisers
  • Sunglasses
  • Toilet paper
  • Dry fruits for snacks
  • Proof of identity (since these areas are very close to the border)
Pix: Rachit Mankad

A manifesto for the simple scribe – my 25 commandments for journalists

 I simply had to put this 25-pointer journalism-made-easy-for-dummies up on my blog. 

Former Guardian science editor, letters editor, arts editor and literary editor Tim Radford has condensed his journalistic experience into a handy set of rules for aspiring hacks

I wrote these 25 commandments as a panic response 15 or more years ago to an invitation to do some media training for a group of Elsevier editors. I began compiling them because I had just asked myself what was the most important thing to remember about writing a story, and the answer came back loud and clear: "To make somebody read it."

Ultimately, there's no other reason for writing. Journalists write to support democracy, sustain truth, salute justice, justify expenses, see the world and make a living, but to satisfactorily do any of these things you have to have readers. Fairness and accuracy are of course profoundly important. Without them, you aren't in journalism proper: you are playing some other game. But above all, you have to be read, or you aren't in journalism at all.
Tablets of stone: 'I realised that when stories I had tried to write turned out wrong, it was because I'd broken one of my own rules.'

I wrote down what was in my mind and once I'd started numbering things, I had to go on. I got past 10, and then 20, and stopped guiltily at 25. I then didn't have time to reduce the text to a formal Ten Commandments. The 25 things got distributed among the Elsevier editors the next morning and then some time later I got asked to talk to some staff at Nature, so I used the same set of prompts, and one or two people asked me for copies.

I gave it the not-very-serious subtitle of "manifesto for the simple scribe" and at around the same time, I realised that when stories that I had tried to write turned out wrong, it was because I'd broken one of my own rules. So I decided I might have written something quite useful, after all.

  1. When you sit down to write, there is only one important person in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader.
  2. You are not writing to impress the scientist you have just interviewed, nor the professor who got you through your degree, nor the editor who foolishly turned you down, or the rather dishy person you just met at a party and told you were a writer. Or even your mother. You are writing to impress someone hanging from a strap in the tube between Parson's Green and Putney, who will stop reading in a fifth of a second, given a chance.
  3. So the first sentence you write will be the most important sentence in your life, and so will the second, and the third. This is because, although you – an employee, an apostle or an apologist – may feel obliged to write, nobody has ever felt obliged to read.
  4. Journalism is important. It must never, however, be full of its own self-importance. Nothing sends a reader scurrying to the crossword, or the racing column, faster than pomposity. Therefore simple words, clear ideas and short sentences are vital in all storytelling. So is a sense of irreverence.
  5. Here is a thing to carve in pokerwork and hang over your typewriter. "No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand."
  6. And here is another thing to remember every time you sit down at the keyboard: a little sign that says "Nobody has to read this crap."
  7. If in doubt, assume the reader knows nothing. However, never make the mistake of assuming that the reader is stupid. The classic error in journalism is to overestimate what the reader knows and underestimate the reader's intelligence.
  8. Life is complicated, but journalism cannot be complicated. It is precisely because issues – medicine, politics, accountancy, the rules of Mornington Crescent – are complicated that readers turn to the Guardian, or the BBC, or the Lancet, or my old papers Fish Selling and Self Service Times, expecting to have them made simple.
  9. So if an issue is tangled like a plate of spaghetti, then regard your story as just one strand of spaghetti, carefully drawn from the whole. Ideally with the oil, garlic and tomato sauce adhering to it. The reader will be grateful for being given the simple part, not the complicated whole. That is because (a) the reader knows life is complicated, but is grateful to have at least one strand explained clearly, and (b) because nobody ever reads stories that say "What follows is inexplicably complicated ..."
  10. So here is a rule. A story will only ever say one big thing. If (for example, and you are feeling very brave) you have to deal with four strands of a tale, make the intertwining of those four strands the one big thing you have to say. You may put twiddly bits into your story, but only if you can do so without departing from the one linear narrative you have chosen.
  11. Here is an observation. Don't even start writing till you have decided what the one big thing is going to be, and then say it to yourself in just one sentence. Then ask yourself whether you could imagine your mother listening to this sentence for longer than a microsecond before she reaches for the ironing. Should you try to sell an editor an idea for an article, you will get about the same level of attention, so pay attention to this sentence. It is often – not always, but often – the first sentence of your article anyway.
  12. There is always an ideal first sentence – an intro, a way in – for any article. It really helps to think of this one before you start writing, because you will discover that the subsequent sentences write themselves, very quickly. This is not evidence that you are glib, facile, shallow or slick. Or even gifted. It merely means you hit the right first sentence.
  13. Words like shallow, facile, glib and slick are not insults to a journalist. The whole point of paying for a newspaper is that you want information that slides down easily and quickly, without footnotes, obscure references and footnotes to footnotes.
  14. Words like "sensational" and "trivial" are not insults to a journalist. You read what you read – Elizabethan plays, Russian novels, French comic strips, American thrillers – because something in them appeals to your sense of excitement, humour, romance or irony. Good journalism should give you the sensation of humour, excitement, poignancy or piquancy. Trivial is a favourite insult administered by scholars. But even they became interested in their subject in the first place because they were attracted by something gleaming, flashy and – yes, trivial.
  15. Words have meanings. Respect those meanings. Get radical and look them up in the dictionary, find out where they have been. Then use them properly. Don't flaunt authority by flouting your ignorance. Don't whatever you do go down a hard road to hoe, without asking yourself how you would hoe a road. Or for that matter, a roe.
  16. Clichés are, in the newspaper classic instruction, to be avoided like the plague. Except when they are the right cliché. You'd be surprised how useful a cliché can be, used judiciously. This is because the thing about journalism is that you don't have to be ever so clever but you do have to be ever so quick.
  17. Metaphors are great. Just don't choose loopy metaphors, and never, never mix them. Subs on the Guardian used to have a special Muzzled Piranha Award, a kind of Oscar of incompetence, handed to an industrial relations reporter who warned the world that the Trades Union Congress wildcats were lurking in the undergrowth, ready to dart out like piranhas, unless they were muzzled. George Orwell reports on the case of an MP who claimed that the jackbooted fascist octopus had sung its swansong.
  18. Beware of street cred. When Moses ordered his commanders to slay the Midianites he wasn't doing it to show that he was well hard. When he warned Pharaoh to let his people go he wasn't saying "give us room to breathe, man, and Pharaoh's, like, no way feller!" The language of the pub or the café has its own rhythms, its own body language, its own signalling devices. The language of the page has no accent, no helpful signalling tone of irony or comedy or self-mockery. It must be straight, clear and vivid. And to be straight and vivid, it must follow the received grammar.
  19. Beware of long and preposterous words. Beware of jargon. If you are a science writer this is doubly important. If you are a science writer, you occasionally have to bandy words that no ordinary human ever uses, like phenotype, mitochondrion, cosmic inflation, Gaussian distribution and isostasy. So you really don't want to be effulgent or felicitous as well. You could just try being bright and happy.
  20. English is better than Latin. You don't exterminate, you kill. You don't salivate, you drool. You don't conflagrate, you burn. Moses did not say to Pharaoh: "The consequence of non-release of one particular subject ethnic population could result ultimately in some kind of algal manifestation in the main river basin, with unforeseen outcomes for flora and fauna, not excluding consumer services." He said "the waters which are in the river ... shall be turned to blood, and the fish that is in the river shall die, and the river shall stink."
  21. Remember that people will always respond to something close to them. Concerned citizens of south London should care more about economic reform in Surinam than about Millwall's fate on Saturday, but mostly they don't. Accept it. On 24 November 1963, the Hull Daily Mail sent me in search of a Hull angle on the assassination of President Kennedy. Once I had found a line that began "Hull citizens were in mourning today as …" we could get on with reporting what happened in Dallas.
  22. Read. Read lots of different things. Read the King James Bible, and Dickens, and poems by Shelley, and Marvel Comics and thrillers by Chester Himes and Dashiell Hammett. Look at the astonishing things you can do with words. Note the way they can conjure up whole worlds in the space of half a page.
  23. Beware of all definitives. The last horse trough in Surrey will turn out not even to be the last horse trough in Godalming. There will almost always be someone who turns out to be bigger, faster, older, earlier, richer or more nauseating than the candidate to whom you have just awarded a superlative. Save yourself the bother: "One of the first ..." will usually save the moment. If not, then at least qualify it: "According to the Guinness Book of Records ..." "The Sunday Times Rich List ..." and so on.
  24. There are things that good taste and the law will simply not let you say in print. My current favourites are "Murderer acquitted" and (in a report of an Easter religious play) "Paul Myers, who played Jesus Christ, emerged as the star of the show." Try and work out which one has the taste problem, and which one will cost you approximately half a million per word.
  25. Writers have a responsibility, not just in law. So aim for the truth. If that's elusive, and it often is, at least aim for fairness, the awareness that there is always another side to the story. Beware of all claims to objectivity. This one is the dodgiest of all. You may report that the Royal Society says that genetic modification is a good thing, and that depleted uranium is mostly harmless. But you should remember that genetic modification was invented by people who were immediately elected to the Royal Society for their cleverness, by people already in there because they knew how to enrich uranium fuel rods and deplete the rest. So to paraphrase Miss Mandy Rice-Davies (1963) "They would say that, wouldn't they?"