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?"