Just for fun!

Doing embroidery, I just realized, is a lot like playing computer games. I mean those where you pop bubbles or candies or bricks or whatever by matching colours and patterns and putting three or more in a row. There’s something very addictive and soothing about those games – they help you clear your mind by simply making you stop thinking, for a while. Also, there’s this feeling of exhilaration when things go popping and splashing colours on your screen, just because you hit a good combination that has triggered off a chain reaction. You can sit back and enjoy the action, doing nothing, just taking in the cornucopia of colours. I think that’s what I like about those games – when I have just too much to do and sit in front of my computer, trying to organize myself and prioritizing, trying to get out of the mess by doing a bit of everything at the same time and getting into a bigger mess, or simply feeling so  drained that I don’t have the energy to do anything constructive, I indulge myself at times, playing one of these silly games, albeit, without the sound effects. What is it about bubbles bursting, crackers popping, balloons exploding, that is so attractive? Does this attraction for loud sounds and colours that are transient and that arouse the sleeping child in us get bigger and monstrous in those who like to play with weapons? At times I wonder…..

chaotic colours.jpg

But I was talking about embroidery – that art that is dying in modern times because little girls are no longer taught to sew in their schools. I went to an all-girls school, and we had needlework for three years, classes three to five (no reason why boys shouldn’t learn to sew too, but that’s a different discussion). I didn’t enjoy it then, at all, doing all the boring lines of different stitches, but I did learn something. I also had good teachers at home, my mother, her sister, my Didun (paternal grandmother), each had their forte. I have seen my Maashi (aunt) embroider dresses and sarees for one and all, including me. My Maa had stopped doing these things, but I have seen elaborate table cloths, pillow covers made by her. My Didun used to make little dresses for me at home and she was an avid knitter, knitting through the day, in all seasons. As a kid, I had a woollen wardrobe that would be envy for most fashion models. I dabbled in knitting and crochet as a child but didn’t do much. I suddenly started embroidery and stitching a few years ago, when I was expecting my daughter. I began by making a coverlet for her, graduated to making tiny dresses and somehow got hooked, going back to my needlework kit every now and then.

When you are playing one of those popping games, you are clearing levels and each level makes you want to play a little more. This urge to play on increases if you happen to get stuck at a level, and you keep playing until you exhaust all your virtual lives. It’s exactly like that when you are doing embroidery. You tell yourself, okay, just a little, and then I will go to bed. But then, when you have exhausted the thread you were using, the part of the design you were working on is three-fourth complete, and you simply can’t stop there. So, you thread your needle again and get going. When that part of the design is complete, you still have a length of thread in the needle. You move on to another part, you want to add another colour and see how the design is evolving, and the saga continues, until someone calls, or your neck hurts or you simply have a job to do that can no longer be ignored. That would be equivalent to the lives being exhausted so that you simply can’t go on further unless you are such a maniac that you want to spend actual money on the game in order to keep going. I have often wondered if anyone ever does that!  And so, just as the bubbles or candies or whatever colourful stuff you are popping keep moving on your screen, making and breaking patterns, keeping you engaged, so do the threads. You keep going, just a little more than you intended originally, perhaps with eyes smarting and neck hurting. Eventually, you fold up your stuff and leave the pattern behind, to be picked up at your next free 15 minutes, which would invariably stretch out a little further, making you feel guilty, but with a sense of satiation – that feeling of childish glee that goes with playing with colours.


Kedarnath – holy curses, tender mercies, magic mountains

If you have been reading my “The vacation that never was”, then you absolutely must read this – Ayan’s perspective of the story, and a more poetic one at that!

Driving and Drifting...


It is 736 pm on June 1 when I write this. Exactly 24 hrs before, I was lying down on the bed opposite to the one I am sitting now, wrapped up below a warm warm blanket in the safe confines of the Swargarohini Cottages at Kedarnath. My teeth were still chattering from an unstoppable wave of chill, which emanated from deep inside my belly, but I was happy to be back with my family. Happy that somehow me and my little daughter Bili had braved the rains, snows, and bone-cutting winds of the Himalayas at 10000 ft to reach where we supposed to reach several hours ago. And I had let my daughter completely alone on the back of a Pitthu (the ones with a basket on their back to transport humans) whose phone number I could not store since the network signs which showed on both our…

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The vacation that never was – Part IV

Rani’s mood had perhaps improved a bit after the jaggery break, and Mumtaz was holding on to her reins. The rain was now tool cold for double t-shirt-clad me, and I asked Mumtaz to stop so that I could wear the soggy jacket. Each of us had carried out jackets and worn whatever we thought we could bear to wear in the heat of Gourikund. We had packed the stuff we would need in Kedarnath in two bags and left everything else (we had a lot of luggage between the eight of us) in a room in the GMVN lodge at Gourikund, which we had booked (thanks to my “smart” thinking) well in advance. The porter who had been charged with or baggage had loaded everything in a pittu and had vanished, before we could realize what was happening. So, now I had no option but to wear the soggy jacket. My hands were freezing, and I realized that my gloves were in Ayan’s backpack (damn!). So, I had to hold on to the now stinging metal handle with bare hands which were wet, freezing and slippery. Mumtaz turned a deaf ear to my request of stopping. I repeatedly asked him to stop and then he said that we could stop at the next shelter, which was, of course, nowhere in sight. Not that there was much in sight any longer, given the intensity of the rain.

Finally, the shelter arrived, but of course, given the intensity of the rain, it was overcrowded and we could not go in. These shelters are basically covers put over a stretch of the road, so people can either wait there or pass through. Mumtaz made Rani stop near the shelter and asked me to wear the jacket and be quick about it. I said that we should find some space under the shed, but he shrugged and said, “jaga hai nahin” (there is no space). Rani was not happy to stand in the rain, so he hurried me. I had to take off the raincoat, put on my soggy jacket and wear the raincoat over it, getting nicely drenched in the process. The raincoat had protected my head until then, which was not fully exposed to the rain for a minute or so. When I had finished the process, I was not sure whether I was warmer or colder, but I was sure that my head was much wetter and soon enough, I began feeling a dull thud in the head. I know this is sounding like a never-ending series of minor disasters and you might be getting quite saturated with this by now. Unfortunately, this is exactly what this trip was. Pause for a while and put yourself into my (by now quite soggy and cold and smelly) shoes, I am sure you will feel some empathy for all of us who were on that road at that time.

Thankfully, Maa had worn thermals under her clothes and had put on her two thick cardigans and the raincoat earlier, and this kept her a little warm. I was shivering, not just with the cold, but also because of a fear that was gripping me – what was my little girl doing in this kind of weather? We had no idea how far they were, and I was hoping that wherever they were, it was not pouring like this, or that they had taken shelter. I couldn’t imagine her sitting on a horse all alone in this rain. The rain seemed to be thickening and getting colder under a charcoal gray sky that threatened to fall on our heads. And then, something hit my spectacles and I jumped with surprise. It was ice! The rain was no longer just rain, but it was a mix of rain and snow, which rapidly turned into hail. The hail came down on us, hitting hard and making it more and more difficult to hold on to the metal handle. My hands were numb, and I realized after a while that my left leg was so numb that I hadn’t even realized it had been hanging out of the stirrup until a passing ghorewalaa pointed it out to Mumtaz. What was Jhilli doing, where were they? These were my only thoughts as we climbed up slowly.

The road had, needless to say, become worse. There was a stretch where there was a waterfall on our right, which ran across the road, and in this stretch, there were some slippery stones and no path. The horses balanced their hooves precariously on these stones, with Mr. Grumpy leading by the reins of his horse and Mumtaz cheering us on. He had this interesting habit. Every time the horse had to master a sharp bend (all of these invariable were steep slopes with steps on which the horse tended to slip), he would make encouraging noises, say things like “are wah!”, “zor laga ke”, “bahot achchha” etc, all words of encouragement. He also invoked Lord shiva now and again, saying “Jai Bholenath”, “Jai Keadrnath”, “Bam Bam Bhole” etc. Initially, I had not noticed this. But soon I realized that here was a Muslim man, invoking a Hindu God continuously, and it appeared to be a habit with him. He was being quite load, and nobody seemed to bother, though I was told that the Ghorewalaas were mostly Muslims. Even in the gray, biting cold that dampened my senses, I felt a little flicker of elation, thinking, “This is my India!”

In addition to the rain and snow and hail, and my constant worry for the others, I had one additional thing to worry about – Rani’s mood swings. I told Mumtaz that his mare was called Rani (queen) and she tended to behave like one. “Iske nakhre to mere gharwali se bhi zyada hai”, replied Mumtaz (her tantrums are more than my wife’s), hitting her in the rump with his stick. I asked him not to keep hitting the poor animal and he told me to mind my own business and let him manage his mare. I felt guilty seeing the animal hit, but most of the men were doing the same to their horses in order to keep them under control. Mr. Grumpy was actually much better in this regard, he mostly controlled the horse by the reins and hardly hit him, and his horse was quite well behaved. Rani was the opposite of well behaved – she was like a teenager with a bad upbringing. Mumtaz had kept her tied to Maa’s saddle with a rope about two feet long. In spite of this, Rani tried her best to run away or at least create disruption. She tried various strategies like butting into Maa’s horse, butting into other passing horses, jumping off the side of the mountain, jumping over the grill barricade on the side of the road, rushing people walking alongside us, shaking her head vigorously to set herself free of the rope (she succeeded once). On one occasion, Mumtaz had strolled off to talk to someone (he kept doing this) and Rani decided to turn back and, in this attempt, the rope was a hindrance. She gave Maa’s horse a hard tug and Maa screamed. I shouted for Mumtaz and he came back to hold the reins. One thing that I must say is that the journey never got monotonous, there was just too much ongoing drama at every turn.

At one point, there was a watering zone for the horses and Mr. Grumpy took his horse to drink water. While the horse drank quietly, Rani refused to go anywhere close to the water and insisted on turning around in one spot. Mumtaz had some trouble keeping her steady and I had to hang on for dear life, ignoring my poor left knee which kept getting bumped into the sides of random horses, who didn’t seem to bother. Given that this dance was happening at a spot where I could see a sharp drop on my left and the right side was full of downward traffic, I was a little worried.  Another couple of kilometres later, we came to Linchauli, which is the only place on this route that offers tents for those who want to call it a day and take a break before Kedarnath. We had watched a travel blog video while planning this trip, and the guy had mentioned this place. I had even suggested that we should halt here, but Ayan had been apprehensive about everyone staying in tents. These are really trekker’s tents with minimal amenities, and he was not sure that it would be suitable for the elderly people. When I spotted the white tents through the rain, all I wanted to do was to get off the horse and curl up in a sleeping bag inside one of those. I thought it would be good idea to wait here for the rest of the party to arrive and asked Mumtaz if we could stop here, but his answer was an emphatic no.

We left Linchauli behind. The snow and hail had stopped by now, and it was only raining. After a while, we had to stop again. This time, Maa’s otherwise calm horse came to a standstill and refused to budge. Mr. Grumpy explained that this was his stand and he would not move without eating and resting. So, again I had to get down in the most painful manner. Maa had to dismount too and we took shelter in a nearby tent which was basically a tea stall, because the rain had again changed into a downpour. Inside the tent, there was some warmth. We found a couple of plastic chairs in one corner and sat down. I realized how bad my knee was when the simple process of sitting down in a chair took an immense lot of effort and caused substantial pain and I had to keep my leg somewhat stretched out while sitting, as it refused to bend properly.

We asked for chai, and waited in the warmth of the tent, me desperately covering my nose and mouth to keep off the acrid kerosene smoke from the dilapidated stove that filled the tent. Added to this was the smoke from cigarettes and bidis that the various people occupying the crowded tent were smoking. I am severely allergic to smoke, to the extent that Ayan calls me a smoke detector, and this air inside this tent was quite toxic, as far as I was concerned. Everyone else seemed to be oblivious of the smoke and smell and people chatted and sipped tea happily. Maa and I were constantly watching the road from inside, and every time we caught a glimpse of pink, we thought it might be Jhilli’s jacket. But we were disheartened every time. In a very gloomy mood we were trying to tell each other that they must be right behind us, and every time we ended up with the same worries – what if she was not okay? What if the rain and hail had been too much for her? What if they had met with an accident? We were scared stiff. I felt suffocated, with the smoke and the fear and the helplessness of the situation.

While we were drinking hot, life saving tea-laced-with-the-smell-of-kerosene, the rain increased its force, with a wind howling around us. Mumtaz was chatting with some people at the other end of the tent and he declared that it was not safe to go out now, so we should wait. I was happy to wait, as I hope Ayan and Jhilli would come by soon. The rain was looking and sounding scary, even from inside the tent. Someone had raised the flap at the other end of the tent and we could see a sheet of gray over the valley beyond. It felt like the gloom would never end. After the initial feeling of warmth, the cold came back with the rain and the heat from the small stove could nothing to stop us from shivering in our cold and soggy clothes. My sling bag was also dripping wet, and I was scared to think what state the camera would be in. I decided not to check until we had reached the safety of the hotel, if we did.

Half an hour or so later, we were mounting our rides again, in a now slightly less intimidating rain, having paid for the tea that we had drunk and the tea and snacks the two ghorewalaas had consumed. Though they were already overcharging us for the horses, I was happy to buy them tea, for the sake of the road travelled together. Mumtaz didn’t have a raincoat, unlike Mr. Grumpy, and used Maa’s raincoat cover as a cap. He didn’t seem to be bothered about the rain, and sang from time to time as he walked beside Rani. He had been alternating between singing, talking to people and hailing Lord Shiva all along the road. He hardly seemed to be able to keep quiet for more than 15 minutes at a stretch. He was from Bihar, he had told me, as were many of the others here. The ghorewalaas came from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand and the pittuwalaas were mostly from Nepal, he had informed me. They spent six months in the year here, doing business, when the route was open and went home for six months, when they did some farming and tended to cows and got to have a family life. Even within these six months, the major season was at this time of the year – mid May to mid July, when most people came for the “yatra”, before the monsoon came in.

The road was becoming more tortuous and slippery and I was finding it slightly difficult to breathe, as we started this last leg of the journey. I kept looking out for the milestones, breathing a sigh of relief at every half kilometre gained. We were gaining altitude rapidly and the wind was biting into us, chilling us through the bones. My frizzy hair felt stiff and I realized that the rain water in the hair was turning into icicles. When I had fallen in the morning, my mother had asked Alam where we can get ice, obviously, for my knee, and Alam had replied “upar, upar” (above, above). She had periodically asked Mumtaz to get ice, and he had said the same, “upar milega” (we can get it above). Now we knew what they had meant – we saw a large frozen chunk of snow on our right and left along the road, with a very muddy, slippery and dirty, narrow path in between. This was basically a mix of melted snow, horse dung and pebbles – a rather dangerous combination. I would have thought that the sight of snow so close at hand would lift our spirits, but it did the reverse. The snow was really dirty and stinky and all it served to do was to make me feel irritable, because it was making the road more dangerous. The horses stepped on the sludge rather tentatively and Mr Grumpy pulled at his horse’s reigns, while Mumtaz urged them on with gusto, screaming “jai kedarnath”, “jai bholenath” and “samhalke!” (carefully), “araam se” (go slow) in random order. Once we had entered the snowy climes, Mumtaz started complaining mildly of the cold, and I heard him mumbling, “aaj to raat ko afim chahiye, bahot sardi hai yaar!” (Oh! its very cold, I need some opium tonight). And then, Mumtaz started going off every now and then, leaving Rani tied to Maa’s horse, talking to the returning lot, most likely in the hope of acquiring some opium, or maybe even stronger stuff. Alcohol is strictly banned in the holy region, but it seems opium is quite acceptable. After all, the lord himself is a connoisseur of opium and cannabis!

Rani took this opportunity to try jumping off the mountainside twice, and once, nearly succeeded. This time Mumtaz was nowhere in sight and Rani was precariously at the edge, having succeeded in tearing off her harness again. Mr. Grumpy came to the rescue and pulled her in, seizing the reins. I gave Mumtaz a piece of my mind when he came, but he was in high spirits, and just said sorry and assured me that this will not be repeated, only to go off at the next turn to say hello to his uncle. Finally, we spotted the horse stand in the distance, and it was the second most welcome sight of the day! The last few hundred metres seemed to take an eternity to be covered, with the traffic being quite thick in this stretch and the road being completely murky. We were helped down from the horses, one last time, and I hoped, the last time ever in my life. We handed over the parchas to the two men, and umtaz asked Maa for bakshish, because he had brought her daughter up in one piece. “aapke ladki ko ekbaar bhi giraya nahin mai” (I didn’t let your daughter fall even once), he said. Maa handed over a hundred to him and they left, the old man grumbling that the parcha was wet, and he would have kept it dry if only we had had the good sense to let him keep them.

Maa and I took stock of our situation. The horse stand was about 2.5 kilometres away from the temple, which meant that our hotel was nearly 2 kilometres away! The two options that we had were sitting in pittus and being carried on human-back, or walk. We chose the second. Mumtaz had discarded the stick that he had given me, and I had asked if he could find me one before leaving. He stood in one spot, looked around, said that he couldn’t see any sticks and bid us goodbye. Before leaving, he advised me to get some herbal oil for my knee, but of course he didn’t tell me where I could get this magical ‘‘maaleesh ka tel’’. I realized how slippery the road was, with the very first step. Maa and I held hands and walked very, very slowly, my knee giving out warning signals with every step. Still, it felt better to be on my feet, than on horseback. We walked out of the horse stand and found a shanty by the road, which was relatively empty. We went in, and I took out my phone, hoping that there would be a signal, even a weak one. The man inside the stall promised tea, but asked us to wait, as someone had gone to fetch water. I wondered what kind of water this would be, but decided not to bother – he would boil it anyway. We were both shivering badly, with our teeth chattering hard, and I found it difficult to speak. I made Maa sit, but when I tried to do the same, I realized that the stool was too low for me, my knee simply couldn’t take it. So I tried standing with my weight balanced on one leg. Maa asked the shopkeeper whether we could get ice somewhere. The man gave her an incredulous look and pointed towards the nearby mountains, which were all snowclad. We hadn’t eaten anything since a single and very horrible aloo paratha in the morning, so I asked the man if he had some biscuits. He said no, he could give us tea, and if we wanted food, we would have to go further up. After a cup of tea, we moved out of the shanty, which was by now too full of smoke as the owner was working up a wood fire.

A kilometre or so ahead, we saw a row of tents and a kind of office which had a crowd around it. A sign said GMVN, and we were relieved to have arrived. After a long wait, I approached the window and told the man there that we had a booking in the name of Ayan Banerjee. He asked where we had rooms and I told him Swargarohini cottage. He shook his head and said “yahan nahin” (not here) and asked me to move on. I was completely bewildered. Then someone asked me what the confusion was about and I told him. This gentleman helpfully explained that the Swargarohini cottages were further ahead, and this was the booking counter for the tents, also by GMVN. We were both overtaken by fatigue, and after the initial relief, this news of more road to cover was devastating. I felt that my leg would not move any more. There was a canteen next to the office, which had a shed with tables and chairs. Maa and I sat down there. Taking the two steps to this place was a humongous effort for me and I thought with trepidation what the rest of the trip would be like, since you could not travel in the mountains without taking steps. We waited and waited, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone, anyone of our party, but nobody came by. We were convinced that Kaku and Gabala (Ujaan) would have reached the hotel long ago. But we hadn’t seen Mamoni and Mama, and we were constantly worried about Jhilli and Ayan. I wondered how he was managing her in this kind of weather. The rain had nearly stopped and the sky ahead was clearing, but the sky behind us was nearly black, which meant that bad weather was continuing on the road. Snowclad peaks drenched in a soft golden light were being revealed on one side, and green mountains on the other. After waiting for nearly half an hour, I decided that we should move ahead. I had tried calling everyone, and Kaku’s phone had rung twice, but there had been no response. We stepped out of the shed and had our first sight of the Kedar dome. It looked beautiful in the fading light, and we could see the road ahead teeming with people. Maa and I paused for a selfie – after all, we had arrived. We walked slowly and Maa stopped to take pictures every once in a while. I clicked some too, but I was really not able to take in the beauty around us which the photos cannot do justice to. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I registered the beauty of the scene around us, but all that I could focus on were the red and green roofs that could be seen ahead of us, where, I assumed, our hotel must be.

In a while we could see the lights of the temple and a long queue of people, that looked much like an ant trail. They were apparently lined up to offer their homage to Kedarnath, and the queue stretched on and on. “This is madness”, I thought, but that’s India. People like us, who come to the mountains to experience nature and appreciate the beauty of the Himalayas are a minuscule minority. The thousands of people of the road, the old and young, people walking with children on their shoulders, old men and women bent low over their sticks, people walking barefoot in the cold, were the people of my country, who come here to worship. What draws them here and keeps them going is not wanderlust, but “bhakti” that feeling which is a mixture of faith, love, loyalty, fear and awe, which is so powerful that people can bear any pain and brave any hurdle to reach their goal, at the end of which they experience bliss. I do not even claim to understand this. My mother is a devout Hindu and she offered silent prayers to Kedarnath from a distance on seeing the temple. She was perhaps afraid to say out loud that He had helped us to reach here because she knew how I would react.

We had disembarked at the horse stand at 5 pm. When we finally reached the Swargarohini cottages, it was 7:05 pm. The last 5-6 short steps down felt like a thousand. I went to the office and asked whether Ayan Banerjee had arrived, knowing fully well that he hadn’t. They said that four people had arrived – Kaku, Ujaan, Mamoni and Mama were settled in the first cottage. They looked pale and my son started crying on seeing me. He had gone through a shock because on arriving at the horse stand in the middle of the rain, my father-in-law had claimed that he would die here. Then the others had arrived in a very bad shape, and he had the immense task of making three of his grandparents, who seemed to be in a state of delirium, see reason and bring them to the hotel. Thankfully, they had come in pittus, each charging them Rs.500. Ujaan put his arms around me and cried. He had been extremely scared, but he had been very brave and had managed the three elderly people very well. I was really proud of my son, who is usually quite immature, but had behaved in a very matured way in a situation of crisis. He continued to do so, when he went out in the rain to fetch water and dinner for everyone, as GMVN told us that they have no room service, even in theie most expensive accommodation at Kedarnath.

But where were Ayan and Jhilli? They arrived finally, around 7:30 pm, in pittus, and in a really dilapidated state. After reaching the cottage, I had had to get help from Maa and Ujaan to pull off my wet and dirty jeans, because it was super stretched and stuck at the knee. I had collapsed on one of the beds and was shivering under a blanket, when I heard Ujaan yell, “eshe gachhe!” (they have arrived). I hobbled out to see Jhilli being taken down from the pittu. Ayan asked for cash and paid the pittuwalaas. He was soaked and shivering and looked very pale and pathetic. She was crying and shaking and I grabbed her and took her in. They had had a horrible time on the road and their experience is another scary story. I hope our daughter would not remember the trauma of this trip when she grows up, and will go back to those beautiful mountains some time, in September or October, when the skies are clearer and there are few people on these roads. Perhaps she will even ride a horse. But if she remembers anything of this trip, she might write her own blog someday. For now, the best person to describe that journey has already written about it, and I highly recommend Ayan’s blog to the interested reader.

The night of 31st May will remain etched in our adult memories forever, perhaps with different dark highlights. Everyone was traumatized and dead tired, to say the least. My knee was lost somewhere in a mass of bruised and swollen tissue. The area where the knee is supposed to be was a big swollen whole with angry purple blotches. We applied diclofenac gels and a hot pad to it and I took a painkiller, for a change. Ayan was constantly shivering, his teeth were chattering even under two heavy quilts. The food was non-descript, but hot, and it helped. Ayan sat with his eyes closed and I put food in his mouth – something that I would never have imagined to be possible, even when he is ill, he insists on feeding himself. Jhilli actually recovered faster, but she was still shaken, and insisted on sleeping with me in the single bed. Since I couldn’t sleep anyway, because of the pain and the nightmares that haunted me for several nights to come, it was good to at least make her feel safe. June dawned on us, fresh and crisp, with the mighty Kedar dome sparkling white against a blue sky, the vagaries of the night living on only in our memories and my increasing pain and bruises.


The Kedar Dome

The vacation that never was – Part III

The weather was good and I was getting used to the pain, the constant bumping against people, and pittus moving on our left by the edge of the road, which caused more pain and the rhythm of the road per se. I had been concentrating on the road, keeping a watchful eye on the ups and downs and the bends, so that I could bend forward when Rani stepped down a slope and stretch backwards when she went up slopes and steps. I was noticing that my mother’s horse tended to slip, with his hind legs kind of stretching to the sides when he climbed up steps, and horses coming down the other side seemed to slip a lot more. I was worried about Maa, but thankfully, the grumpy old man was good at controlling his animal. I was trying to imagine how I would come down, with the now really badly hurting knee, when a palki bumped against it. Basically, my knee was at a height that was perfect for everything to bump into it in the worst possible way – Pittuwalaas bumped it with their heads or with the edge of the pittu, people pushed against it with their hands or bumped against it with their sticks, and occasionally with their heads. But the palki was definitely the worst, as this time it was the thick wooden bar that hit the knee and sent a shocker up my spine, to my brain and I shrieked in pain. My brain told me that I needed to do something to my knee, and Mumtaz asked, for the nth time, in a politely cajoling kind of way that made my blood boil, “dard ho raha hai kya?” (is it hurting?”) This time I was so irritated, that I told him no, I was just trying to sing, and he laughed, which made me want to hit him on the head. Again, for the umpteenth time, he assured me that once we go up, all will be well in the cold and “malish ka tel dal denge” (we will put massage oil), which will apparently work like magic on my knee. So, of course, I had nothing to worry.

Rani had been behaving well for some time and I was feeling a bit relieved. We reached a check post, where the policeman on duty asked for the “parcha” or the money receipt for the horse. Maa’s ghorewalaa had taken the two small slips of paper from me in the beginning of the journey and he presented these to the policeman. There was some trouble over Mumtaz, as his license was apparently not okay. He kept saying that he has stepped in for someone else, but the man on duty sent him to the tent to pay a fine of Rs.500 and he came back with a slip of paper, not appearing to be very unhappy. While Mumtaz was away, we had a little piece of drama (yes, another one). The policeman asked why the ghorewalaa had the parcha and the ghorewalaa mumbled something about keeping it safe, in case it rained. Then this helpful policeman turned towards us and told us to keep our receipts with ourselves. He explained that these men often cheat people – when one takes a break at a tea stall or toilet, the ghorewalaa runs away with the horse. He can then return to Gourikund and start another trip. The poor traveller has no option but to hire another horse midway, and this typically is more expensive that the full one-way trip as the ghorewalaas exploit people completely. They can’t get the money without the receipt, so its best to give them the receipt only on reaching Kedarnath. This was turning out to be a day of lessons learnt. We kept the slips of paper with us for the rest of the trip and did not yield to the multiple requests by the grumpy old man along the way to hand them over to him for safe keeping. Mumtaz never asked for the receipt though.

We proceeded in good weather for some time. Maa kept asking if my leg was hurting until I got really irritated and asked her how it could not hurt. But in order to reassure her, I also told her that it was okay, it was hurting a little and I was fine. I guessed she was praying to all the Gods, and probably offering special bribes to Lord Kedarnath for our safety and well-being.

A little further up there was a food stall on the left side of the road. Something was being cooked in a large kadai (wok) in the front of the stall and several people were sitting inside. Rani went straight towards the wok from which a spicy smell was wafting towards us. She put her head and neck into the stall and I hung on to the pole of the stall for dear life, calling out to Mumtaz. People at the stall started shouting at Mumtaz, asking him to control the horse and to help me down. “Gira dega, gira dega!” shouted several voices. Mumtaz offered Rani a lump of jaggery, which Rani gulped down but was not pacified. Mumtaz asked me to get down. I thought stepping down on the platform of the stall would be easier for me, but the stubborn mare refused to turn and I had to once again climb down painfully as before. I had given my camera to Mumtaz and he banged it against the road. Once again, I thought the D90 would be dead, but it was fine. Mumtaz picked up a stick from somewhere, handed it to me and said, “thoda chalke jao, tumhare liye achchha hoga” (walk a bit, it will be good for you). I looked at him incredulously and tried telling him that my knee was hurting. He smiled, nodded his head wisely and told me that I should walk. His horse needed a break, and she was moody today because she was separated from her mate. “randi ko bahot bukhar chadi hai” (the whore is in heat), I heard him telling the people in the stall. Then he said something in their local dialect and they all laughed. I didn’t like the turn the conversation was taking and decided to walk. Maa’s horse was also resting, with Maa still sitting on him. His caretaker was giving him jaggery too. I told Maa not to worry and tentatively took a few steps forward. I realized that the stick was actually a big help and I could manage to limp on and it felt good, much better than the horse ride, as long as I took measured and slow steps, putting my weight on the stick.

I had walked for 15 minutes or so, when it started to drizzle. I was wearing two t-shirts and my jacket was on the saddle of the horse. I had brought my sling bag with me, which had the raincoat. I decided to put the D90 inside the sling bag and wear the raincoat. I put the camera in the cover of the raincoat before stuffing it into the bag. I didn’t know then that half an hour later, I would be thanking my good sense for this. I walked on a little further and came to a fork in the road. Now I was confused as there were people moving both ways on both stretches of the road, as far as I could see. The branch on the left went up and the other went down. A little below, I could see a small bridge over the river on this one. I asked a man standing near the bend and he pointed up. He seemed to be wearing some kind of security uniform, so I trusted him. There was a shelter on the upper road, just a little ahead of the fork. The drizzle had started to turn into a light rain and I decided to wait at this shelter for the two horses to arrive. By the time Mumtaz came, it was raining properly. He asked me to follow him to the horses, which were waiting at the fork. He asked me why I had taken the wrong road. Soon it became clear to me why the man in the uniform had pointed me to the upper road – it turns out that the lower road is typically taken by horses. The upper one is meant for people who go on foot and is slightly shorter, but not good for horses. By the tie I limped down to the horses and retrieved my jacket from the saddle, it was quite wet. I realized that Mumtaz had put it on the saddle with the inner soft lining facing up, and so the jacket was all soggy now. I was pushed up on to the saddle and we began moving, Rani tied to Maa’s horse, the cold rain and wind lashing at us. As we crossed the bridge over the gushing Alokananda, something changed. The mountains appeared wet, gloomy and formidable, the lush beauty of some time back now sheathed in gray.

The road that I have been talking about is not really a road, but a path of cobbled stones which were wet and slippery. Apparently, this is what the horses prefer, according to the ghorewalaas, but it didn’t seem so to me, seeing them slip more and more as we climbed up the slippery slopes with their uneven steps and sharp bends that the horses had to cover in single sharp turns in order not to fall. It was quite scary, especially after having experienced a fall. In some stretches, two horses crossing each other is the maximum that the “road” can accommodate. No wonder people keep pushing and jostling each other, given the really dense traffic on the road, thanks to the religious fervour of Indians. When Ayan and Kaku had planned this trip, they had checked for when the “season” starts, the weather, the means of travel and the accommodation. None of us had realized that this would be the peak season of the “chaar dhaam yatra”, which brings thousands of devotees to these parts of the mountains, visiting four holy shrines, of which Kedarnath is perhaps the most important. The roads had been full of vehicles with saffron flags, young men on motorbikes with saffron bandanas, flying the same flags from their bikes. The mountain path was overcrowded with pilgrims. The small shanties and tea stalls along the road were overflowing with people, and the shelters on the road were not large enough to accommodate all the people who wanted to avoid the rain. The cobbled stones were not only wet with the rain, but also covered in horse dung. The stench was everywhere. As the horses moved, they defecated and urinated. In fact, my jeans got sprayed quite a bit by Maa’s horse all along the way. The rain was cleaning up the jeans and shoes a bit, but soggy shoes are not at all pleasant, especially if you are constantly climbing into colder and colder terrain.

To be continued…..

A vacation that never was – Part II

I was sitting on the rather dirty pile of pipes and even through my jeans, I could see my left knee swelling dramatically. Alam tried to pull me up and I screamed in pain. Some people gathered around to ask what had happened and then went their own ways. Maa was crying, sitting on her horse, as the ghorewalaa refused to get her down. In fact, her ghorewalaa, a grumpy old man, insisted on moving on, but my mother refused to go without me. “Take me back to Gourikund”, I told Alam. He flatly refused. Then I insisted that I would not budge until the rest of the party had arrived. Alam got some cold spring water from nearby and put it on my knee. All that the water managed to do is to soak the left leg of my jeans. I was angry, most of all with Ayan, as from the beginning I had not wanted to ride on horseback and he had insisted that it would be fine. Then I had been worried about my back, which is a bit weak, and now I had a knee injury to cope with. And I was now scared for my daughter, Jhilli, who had been forced to ride alone on a horse. My worry superseded the pain as I kept waiting for them to turn the last bend from where I would be able to see them, and nobody came by. Alam kept insisting that he would help me on to the horse and I would be fine, but I stubbornly refused.

Maa’s horse was getting impatient, and so was his caretaker. People stopped by, looked at me, shook their heads, scolded Alam, asking “kaise gira diya?” (how did you manage to drop her) and moved on. We had already started late because getting the horses in the morning had involved a lot of drama, and it was nearly noon. Alam was irritable, he wanted to drop us at Kedarnath and return home as soon as possible. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of my son’s yellow sweater. Soon enough, he and Kaku came by. “What happened?” they asked, and I told them that I had fallen from the horse. They were shocked, they asked their ghorewalaas to stop, but those men didn’t even seem to hear. They led the horses on and I could see the receding faces of my father-in-law and son, drawn with worry. Maa was constantly asking to be helped down from the horse and the old man turned a deaf ear to her pleas. Ayan and Jhilli were nowhere to be seen, as were my mother-in-law (Mamoni) and her brother (Mama).

My knee was throbbing with pain and had now begun to feel very heavy. One man came and asked what had happened to me. By this time Alam had become too impatient and I thought I should at least try to get on to the horse. After all, even to get to the nearest first aid camp, I would need the horse. This man helped Alam, and together they literally pushed me up on the horse, causing my knee to feel like it was on fire and was being drilled through at the same time. For a few seconds, my head was swimming and I thought I would fall again. They took my sling bag and tied it to the saddle and Alam promised to stay with the horse and be careful. There were tears in my eyes, but I didn’t care. With every step that Kamla took, my knee sent out cries for help to my CNS. I told myself to concentrate on the task at hand – keep my balance and keep an eye on the road. The beautiful scenery around could take a back seat.

A signboard announced Kedarnath 14.5 km. Soon after this, Kamla slipped again. I screamed, Alam pulled the reins. This time I refused to ride on this mare any further. I had been noticing that the horses were all slipping a bit while going up and down the steps on the road. However, their hind hooves were slipping. But for Kamla, her front hooves had slipped twice already, and I didn’t want to take any further risks. Alam hailed a man who was going down towards Gourikund with a rider less horse. They spoke a bit and then they told me that I could ride this other horse, which was a little smaller in size that Kamla. I had no option, so I said yes. This meant that I had to go through the extremely painful motion of getting down from Kamla’s back and then get on to this new horse’s back. Needless to say, the knee protested, a lot, but had to go through the motions anyway.

In case you have never experienced this, let me tell you how it works. There’s a horse, of a standard size, with a saddle on its back. The ghorewalaa will tell you to put one foot on the stirrup, which is about the height of your waist. If you are not used to horse riding or gymnastics, you will find it a rather difficult task, especially if you are old or overweight or have a back issue (this pretty much covers 80% of the population, I guess). Once you fail, they will give you a hand, literally. They will make you put your feet (with shoes, of course) on their hands, which they will hold together to make a platform, and give you a lift. Otherwise, they will ask you to put your foot on their knee. Any of this is a rather unpleasant option, you would feel horrible stepping on another person, but they don’t care. They just want you on the horse so that they can get started. They will push you up and make you throw your leg over the horse, pulling your leg if required, oblivious of the pain it might cause to your poor back. They will take your jacket, which you would not be wearing at Gourikund because its too hot, and spread it on the saddle to make it comfortable for you. You will have to hold on to a metallic handle fixed to the saddle for the entire journey. How do you get down from the horse? That process is equally tedious, because of the height and width of the horse. You have to put your weight on the ghorewalaa’s shoulder and jump down. What do you do if you have an inured knee? You try not to jump, but come down lightly on the other leg, hitting your knee against the horse. No matter what you do, when you touch down, you will feel a searing pain in your bad knee.

So now I was on a slightly shorter horse and was telling myself that all will be well. Alam bid us goodbye and returned to Gourikund. My new ghorewalaa was called Mumtaz. “But Mumtaz is a feminine name”, I said. He proudly said, “Nahin, mera naam Mumtaz Khan hai” (“Khan” like in the movie My name is Khan, with an extra stress in the kh). His horse’s name was Rani, short for Radharani. So, again, I had mare. Mumtaz kept hitting Rani with a whip-like stick and called her a “Randi” (whore). I soon realized that I was in for a bad deal, because this animal seemed to be in a bad mood, trying her best to go into a non-cooperation movement against Mumtaz. If I had been in the right frame of mind, this would have been an interesting study in animal behaviour. But I was in immense pain, I was a bit scared and I wanted a safe journey. I was in no mood for the dramatics of a mare, that could, in principle, jeopardize my safety.

Mumtaz insisted that he had his mare under control. Within half an hour of having started with Rani, we came to an area that had a horse stand and some stalls where people could get refreshments. Mumtaz had tied Rani to Maa’s horse with a short rope to keep them together. Suddenly, without any warning, Rani turned left sharply, tearing the rope with a jerk and barged in to the horse stand. Several horses were already feeding there, and Rani pushed her way through the horses, with me struggling to hold on to the saddle, in a state of panic. Mumtaz ran after Rani, but by then she had pushed herself between two large horses and had started eating from the large feeder. The whole place stank of horse food, horse dung and horse urine. Finally, Mumtaz came to my rescue and asked me to get down, as Rani needed to eat. This was her regular feeder, and she wouldn’t budge until she had had her fill. “Saali randi”, he said, hitting her again. I was almost pulled down by Mumtaz and I nearly collapsed on the ground with pain. Maa and I sat on a bench by the roadside.


The horse stand

We were both extremely worried about the rest of the party. After a 15 minute wait, we both decided that Mamoni and Mama might have decided not to continue since we had seen no signs of them. Maa was very worried about Mamoni, given that she is the nervous kind and is not very good at putting up with hardships. Ayan and Jhilli finally arrived – what a relief it was to see them! She was sitting upright on her horse, looking quite happy. She smiled and waved at us, and we were relieved. When we had started, she had been screaming and Ayan had insisted on going with her. Our horses had started before them and so they had fallen behind. It was reassuring to know that she was fine. I was proud of my little girl, she had indeed been quite brave. Mumtaz insisted that we have to move on. I wanted all four of us to go together, but or ghorewalaa’s refused to wait any longer. The other two horses were feeding and we went past them. While we passed them, I told Ayan that I had fallen from the horse. I had no idea whether he even heard me properly. I hoped that they would soon catch up with us, but that was wishful thinking!

To be continued…..


A Vacation That Never Was – Part I

We went on a family vacation – a team of 8, with ages ranging from 7.5 years to 78 years, to Uttarakhand. The trip was to be a dream come true for my father-in-law (Kaku), who had wanted to see the Kedar dome since his childhood and also for my mother (Maa), who is very religious, and has always wanted to see Kedarnath (Lord Shiva who rules over these parts of the mountains). As a family, we love the Himalayas, so we were all looking forward to the rather lengthy trip. The trip started with an unannounced delay of 1.5 hours the train (nobody bothered to explain why) at the Howrah station.


My daughter, Rupkatha/Jhilli, at the Howrah station. She pretty much epitomizes what we all felt at that time.

People who believe in premonitions would have been wary at this stage. But we are scientists and we don’t believe in coincidences (thankfully), so our spirits dampened by the heat and sweat rose soon enough on the train as our journey began. What followed was a rather tortuous tale. If you like Bollywood films that keep following sinusoidal curves and go from one disaster to another with some songs as fillers, read on! Let me warn you, there would be no item numbers or romantic song and dances, only normal people and the beautiful Himalayas. But yes, you will get enough salt, pepper and lime on the way!


“And what’s your horse’s name?” I asked.

“Kamla”, replied Alam, my ghorewaalaa or horse-owner. Only, he is not the owner, just the caretaker and the one who trudges up and down the mountains with the horse every day, sometimes twice a day.

So, my horse was not a horse but a mare, a large chestnut one with a dark brown and black mane. Just ahead of us was its partner, with my Maa as his rider and an old, bitter kind of man holding the reins. We had started the climb, rather the ride up to Kedarnath from Gourikund only some time back. The initial chaos on the road had cleared a bit and the weather was beautiful. After some minutes of feeling very uncomfortable and worrying about my weak back, I had begun enjoying the ride. The rather wobbly cobbled road twisted and turned along, with the Alokananda flowing on our right. We had covered about a couple of the 17.5 kilometres, so I mentally settled in to enjoy the experience.


A random shot from mareback, while I was enjoying the ride.

The horses moved slowly, stepping carefully on the too smooth and hence slippery stones and Alam grumbled that it had not rained in these parts for the last 3-4 days, which made the stones slippery. This was news to me, as I would have expected the rain to make stones more slippery, but Alam was convinced this was not the case, and I didn’t argue. There was a constant flow of people and animals in both directions. There were people on foot, on horses, and those who were being carried by men, either in pittus or palkis. A pittu is a large wicker basket in which the mountain people carry everything, from luggage to people, on their backs. A palki or palanquin is a seat fixed with poles, balanced on the shoulders of either two or four men. Both look quite uncomfortable (especially the pittu), dangerous and inhuman.

We had to stop because there was a traffic jam, literally – some horses were trying to overtake us, and given that there were already two sets of horses with riders going in the two directions, plus all the other means of transport and people on foot, this meant quite a bit of jostling on the rather narrow road, which, to say the least, is dangerous. So Alam stepped away from Kamla, shouting at the people who were “breaking traffic rules”, while we waited by the roadside. Suddenly, Kamla started moving, and I called out to Alam, and before I could fathom what was happening, Kamla’s front hooves had slipped and I was falling and I could hear my mother screaming. I saw this in slow motion in my dreams, rather nightmares (no pun intended) for several nights after this. But all of this happened in a jiffy; in a matter of seconds, I went from a state of bliss on mareback (yes, I just invented the word!) to a state of panic to a state of severe pain. I had my D90 around my neck, and as I was falling, I was telling myself to protect the precious camera. I fell on a stone (where else?) on my left knee, the camera still in my hand. The lens cap fell off. The first thing I did was to switch on the camera and check whether it was still working, after all, though I had tried to protect the lens, the camera had taken the fall with me and hit the road. D90 was working fine, but my knee wasn’t. Alam and a couple of other people had run over to me and they tried to pull me up. I collapsed back on the road. The knee felt like it was on fire. There was a pile of rubber piping on the road and they made me sit on it. I couldn’t fold my knee. I sat there, unable to move, my leg throbbing in pain. “I can’t go up like this, I can’t walk and I can’t sit on a horse, maybe I have fractured the knee, and I need to see a doctor”, I thought.

to be continued…..


Rainbow Salad Recipe

This is a salad that can be eaten as a dish itself, or just as a salad on the side. It’s also good for a starter. You can use all kinds of vegetables and fruits, but I am putting down my preferred combo here.


Capsicum/Bell peppers – 1 each of red, yellow and green, of similar sizes.

Apple – 1

Pear – 1

Black grapes – 20-25

Tomato – 1 large or cherry tomatoes (10-15)

Black olives – I use preserved ones (2-3 tablespoons of slices)

Chicken breast – 1 medium sized (optional)

Cheese (optional), use as you like, chopped into small cubes like the vegetables. But don’t use too much cheese.


For the Sauce:

Mayonnaise/ Salad dressing – 3 tablespoons

Freshly ground pepper – 1 teaspoon

Olive oil – 1 teaspoon

Lemon juice – 1 tablespoon, freshly squeezed

Salt – to taste (about 1/8 teaspoon should be enough)


Cut all the fruits and vegetables into small pieces, so that everything is about the size of the grapes.

Boil the chicken, and cut into small cubes in similar sizes as the vegetables.

Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl.

Add all the ingredients for the sauce in a small bowl and mix well, until it turns into a smooth paste. If it is too thick, you can add a little bit of chicken stock (or water).

Add the sauce to the salad and mix well.

Add basil leaves for seasoning. If you like, you could also add a bit of grated cheese on the top.

If you like it spicy, you can sprinkle some Tabasco sauce on the salad before eating.

Do not heat. If you need to store it, keep it in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Before eating, let it stand for some time so that the salad is nearly at room temperature before you eat it.

You can also use chopped hard-boiled eggs in the salad, but then it should be eaten fresh.