Sunday, September 28, 2014

To those who let us "be"

'Bubz, no one tagged me in that ten books list', whined Sid. We were having a lazy Sunday sprawled on the couch among all the papers while Mia and Molly lay on their backs, tongues hanging out comically and limbs splayed wide open - their 'everyday-is-Sunday' sleeping position.  I decided to comfort him, "Don't worry, everyone thought it was a bit of a pseudo exercise in intellectual exhibitionism and according to the papers, a lot of the choices just didn't match up with sales for those books. Were people making up stuff? Maybe. But it was interesting to see what stuck in people's minds. Anyhow, you don't really like reading books so why do you care?" He still looked a bit hurt, "Still...I didn't have to actually participate, but it would have been nice to be considered. I too like some of the greats...Earl Stanley Gardner, James Hadley Chase, P G Wodehouse...anyone with three names really!" I kissed him on his bald head and promised to bake him a cake to nurse his bruised feelings, which elicited a whoop of joy and "Get to it woman, cook for your husband...and don't forget to give me the bowl when you are done...licking the bowl is the best part".

As I whirled the ingredients together and the smell of chocolate enveloped the apartment and sent the
Wouldn't tuck my track pants in or wear boots over them anymore!
dogs into a frisky frenzy, I watched Sid plunge greedily into the batter bowl and lick it clean.  The image of this grown man with a chocolate smeared mouth and a silly smile to match his satisfaction brought my thoughts back to the 'ten books list' that went viral for a while on Facebook.  I read in an article that when analyzing the lists a majority of the people had included books they had grown up reading - Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie and several adults including me had Harry Potter on there as well - our appetite for escaping into fantasy still going strong even as adults.  But it also got me thinking of why we gravitate quite naturally towards so many things we grew up with - food, music, friends or places.  Why we do this is not really an unexpected or unknown reason - for me it is simple. My childhood preferences are unadulterated, unconditioned and natural choices. Before peer pressure or society had too much of a chance to make us feel conscious of whether are choices made us look impressive or cool.

Friends, for example, from when you were growing up are probably the ones who knew the 'unfettered' you.  The person you were before you shaped yourself into a more socially impressive adult who loves sushi, wine festivals, designers, espresso and Ben Okri. Not that I am implying any of those choices are not genuine, for as we grow we learn to appreciate so many new things, but some of them we acquire also to show off :) I am still the most comfortable with some of the people I grew up with.  Shagun and I have known each other since I was 7 and she was 6.  There was a gap when we weren't in touch for a while, but when we were back together in college in Delhi, we slipped back into our easy friendship. We knew each other in Wellington, an absolutely magical place for children to grow up, with so much to fuel our imaginations and a landscape conducive to romps, picnics, exciting games of cops and robbers and prim horse riding lessons.  She and I spent many an hour
playing 'house house' in the backyard, traipsing through each other's houses since we were neighbors and embarrassingly enough we were each others' first kiss (though definitely not the best one!).  A serious discussion ensued one day:

Shagun: they put their tongues in you know
Me: yes, and the noses never bump
Shagun: Imagine, cheeeeee!
Me: I know, cheeeeeee
Shagun: they seem to like it though

In silent assent, we decided to see what it was like by gingerly sticking out our tongues and screwing our eyes shut tight. To call it a kiss would be technically incorrect, since at first contact we drew back giggling shrieking with "cheeeeee, it's like sand paper! Why would anyone like that?"  So despite that little moment we've stuck together years later and have hopefully become better kissers!  There so many others - Juhi and I were together when we were about 11, a time when we had fierce contests to see who was the better dancer - busting moves we'd probably be much too embarrassed to do now, but at the time 'Wake Me Up before you go go' hadn't seen anything like it! We have stayed in touch and may not be as close as we were at the time, but I can be in another room listening to the tv and recognize her voice in an ad even if I am not looking at the screen. The same voice that discussed Femina Home Truths with me very seriously and who read my sister's letters secretly with me!  With Jenny and Sonali in Woodstock we posed for silly photographs, ate copious amounts of Wai Wai and fought and made up relentlessly over 2 years and then some more in college - I can still call them and the memory of silly phrases like "The psychology of a child who has not got their chicken..." or "Go to...mum" (long stories, had to be there) can still send us into endless bouts of laughter!  As you grow older, it's hard to make close friends since it's rare that one has the time or the
inclination to let one's guard down and just "be" the way you are around the people you are closest to (Ayesh, you're the exception!).

As the oven timer went off, I slipped out of my thoughts and turned my attention to retrieving the cake.  Sid skipped over with the dogs in tow and harassed me for a piece, ignoring my warnings of it being too hot.  Within minutes he had cut himself a piece and shoved another into my hands.  I laughed as he stuffed his face and his eyes grew comically large and inflated his cheeks to let some of the heat out. I laughed so loud I snorted and dropped my cake and then mock wailed in despair as the dogs descended upon it in glee. It was Sid's turn to laugh and as I cut myself another piece he yelled that "I was eating more than my fair share and women should eat less".  It's nice to live with someone with who you can still let your inner child out!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

K-Man - the rise of the bland super hero!

"When she isn't writing about her dogs, her blog focuses mainly on her husband...who she is utterly besotted with", said a friend, while describing my blog to someone else.  I laughed when I overheard this.  It sounds so sappy to be 'besotted'! But I realise my blog does give that impression. Don't get me wrong, it's not that he isn't 'besottable', but I am also well aware of Sid's many flaws. My 'besotted-ness' is balanced out considerably by my short temper being unleashed on him regularly for his many irritating qualities. My focus on Sid stems from him being such great inspiration - his silliness, his sense of humour, the stupid things he does, his elaborate plans, his absolute devotedness to our dogs, his inclusive nature, etc etc. But most of all it is one quality that stands out for me...his kindness.

While writing that I am stifling a sounds so bland and unexciting. There are no superheroes or mutant X-men who's superpower is kindness ( it may be a part of who they are) but there isn't that one hero who is clad in a soft gold body suit, with baby-pink inner wear on the outside, radiating goodness, helping mankind with kind words or woolly blankets in the cold, or who just holds one's hand when the world feels like it's over.  When I mentioned it to Sid, he was horrified. 'Bubz, don't do it. This is social suicide for friends will think I'm a frilly idiot. And the women...oh no, the women! They never go for the kind sweet boys...can't you love me for something more macho?" I offered some helpful suggestions, "your love for chick flicks...Ms Congeniality...ummm your 'supportiveness' in coming along with me to a spa to 'keep me company'...your fearlessness in standing up for liking even what may seem rather un-macho, like Air Supply!' He looked utterly depressed, "I could go on", I suggested, but with a wave of his hand he signaled the end to
suggestion hour and covered his face . "I'll live with's a wonder that I've not been eaten alive by bullies and been socially ostracised after your description of my likes and dislikes".

Not that kindness is uncommon, there just isn't enough of it - it's so underrated. The influence comes
mainly from people around you and unfortunately though I see some stunning examples, there just seems so little.  I am astounded when I see children ordering the help around without a word of thanks or being cruel to the weaker kids. I feel like slapping anyone who screams in fear when they see a dog coming towards them or poke and tease animals if they are in a cage or tied (or free for that matter). I hate bullies as much as I hate SMS language. All this stems from ignorance and an inability to understand or accept 'otherness'.  There is very little stress on raising little people to be kind.  Smart, yes; ambitious - yes; make pots of money - yes. All noble goals, but compassion and understanding of others - and I mean 'others' in a really broad sense -  the victims of intolerance and cruelty could be women, could be men, could be old people, could be the help, could be waiters, could be animals - just others. Kindness and compassion can make the world go round too, but it's so un-macho, so not-high-on-the-agenda...such short sightedness, such narrow vision infuriates me. I don't pretend to be the kindest person on the planet, and neither is Sid, but he has definitely helped me think more about it.

Of course with Sid most things also backfire spectacularly. We were in the car one evening driving back home, when a car careened wildly in front of us and swerved towards the curb where a cycle rickshaw was standing with a lady and two young children seated within it. As the car hit the rickshaw, one of the children slipped through the bars and fell below on the road, while everyone else wobbled a bit but fortunately the driver managed to quickly steer away to avoid causing more damage. We stopped, as did the offending car, but we were closer and rushed over to the rickshaw. The child on the road looked alright, quiet in shock, while the concerned mother yelled in fright.  I asked her if we could help and Sid helpfully chimed in, 'Ma'am can we take you to the hospital?' She was obviously preoccupied examining her child so he repeated his offer, 'Ma'am maybe it's better if we get you to a hospital quickly so your son can see the doctor.' She shrieked in response, 'Arrey, leh jaana toh padega, baar baar kya pooch raha hai" and smacked him in frustration with her handbag. Despite the seriousness of the situation I wanted to laugh looking at Sid's shocked expression, but he was spared from further assault and battery when the offending driver made an appearance and the lady directed her anger towards him.

So yes, kindness will go unappreciated and backfire at times; it would be unlikely to show up in a matrimonial ad ('A kind, yet fair, partner needed for MBA graduate - caste no bar'!), and it does sound rather unexciting.  But children (and adults) need to be exposed to 'others', to learn tolerance and acceptance and respect - kindness has many layers.  In an ideal world this quality would not be an exception.  Until then I hope we get some fuzzy superhero movies - a soft gold body suit and baby pink under-outer wear may sound insipid as far as superhero costumes go, but it isn't such a bad thing - maybe Sid will agree to let me make a video as a start!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ain't no mountain high enough...

"Bubz, we are going to Kashmir. Off the beaten track Kashmir, yes sirree - none of these shikaras and silly costumes. We shall be intrepid explorers, scaling the mountains high and valleys low - only us and nature. And then some rest and relaxation in a little cottage nestled away from the hustle and bustle."

I looked at him with only one thing on my mind - "What about the loo?" 
"The loo?", he asked.
"The loo?", I repeated
"To poo?", he asked stupidly
"And to pee", I elaborated.
"Well what about it?", he asked
"Oh speed up man! On this trek - what is the loo situation?"
"I assume it will be in a tent, with running hot water, an automatic toilet seat warmer and some books stacked at the side" he rambled.
"Don't take this lightly, I am not crouching behind rocks with cows and sheep grazing in sight, giving me disgusted looks"
"Oh bubz, they do it in the open, I'm sure they won't mind!"
"Siddharth!", I shrieked.

He leapt to it and bounded off. I heard him dialing furiously and then fiercely whispering, "Shamsher, listen partner. She won't do it in the not that man, call up and find out the loo situation from the agency. Yes, she said ok if it's a medium level trek and she said clean loo, clean sheets...". I ensured that I followed up over the next few days, belting out "LOO!" every time I saw Siddharth until he finally announced that all had been set and the agency organising the trek had said there would be tented arrangements made to my satisfaction and I would not have to drink "jaundice" water - my definition of any dodgy looking H2O.  I had married him, vowing to trust him through thick and thin, so I decided that his word was solid gold.

So off we went to Kashmir with our darling Neha and Shamsher in tow, our travelling companions
who have embarked with us on a few different journeys now.  We haven't torn each other to pieces yet in such close proximity so we keep at it each year! Our arrival in Srinagar was as scheduled and we got straight into our waiting car with beaming driver - an entertaining chap called Kamran, who took great pride in telling us about Srinagar, religion, politics and how he enjoyed some of Ella Fitzgerald's music which Shamsher put on the car audio system.  Typical to us we retreated with lots of beer in tow straight to our houseboat on Dal Lake, refusing to be taken to all the lovely gardens as we are just plain lazy and do whatever we feel like doing when we feel like doing it.  Srinagar went in a pleasant haze of lots of shikara rides, some particularly memorable ones - a silent float towards the old city by night, watching the people of the lake skillfully navigate their shikaras through the waterways, boatloads of vegetables, of trinkets and baubles, of melting ice cream and corn on the cob jostling amicably alongside people on their way home, rowing purposefully whilst perched precariously on the tip.  By morning a silent calm stretch, the crumbling buildings as we approached the old city, ducks bobbing in and out of the water looking surprised when they surfaced as if to say "Dammit, we've only got this far?".  We went for a pleasant ramble in Dachigham along gurgling streams, bought second hand books in a Sunday market and stuffed ourselves silly at Aadoos with mirchi rogan josh, Kashmiri pulao and what we called 'rum balls', devoid of rum and not strictly ball-shaped.

Thus fortified and rested we made our way after a day and a half in Srinagar to start our trek, three hours away at a place called Naragnag. Our final destination was about 5000 feet away at
spectacular Gangbal Lake, at 13000 feet - one of the many captivating high altitude lakes in this amazing terrain. At the start I knew little of how literally I would get a feel
for the terrain (I clambered with my hands, slipped and slid around on my bum and wobbled precariously at most places!). After a mild ramble through an old temple at Naragnag we were off with some sturdy ponies in tow, stumpy sticks for support and much enthusiasm. Until we got to the first five minutes, which were uphill. Then till the next ten minutes, which were also uphill. Till the next 3 hours, which were at such a steep ascent I thought my feet would get jammed at a 45 degree angle. Loose rock and pebbles, a surprising amount of traffic in the form of groups of cheerful local Kashmiri men who all encouraged us on amiably with 'aaram aaram seh chalo' and not having enough breath to negotiate more than 30 seconds at a time without having to wheeze to a halt, was pretty much how we made it up to the midway point.  There was an episode where Neha tried to snuff me out by making me eat Glucose without water (we though our guides were meant to carry it, but turns out they had other plans in store for us) and I almost choked thinking, "If I die now at least I won't have to climb any further!" After three and a quarter hours we had reached midway and stopped for the night by a small hut on a slope with a cheerful stream nearby. Our lovely guide, Mujib, who kept us motivated and entertained with topics ranging from Bollywood to the Great Gatsby, quickly got us settled in. We forgot the ascent in minutes, as we watched the tents set up and dove inside them like excited children - warm, dry and quite roomy. The night came swiftly, and amid eating a dinner of MTR pre cooked food with rice and discovering that I would have to drink from the stream (the horror!); discovering that the loo was a cloth looped over some branches covering three sides and one was better off finding a rock or a tree (the utter horror!); and then resigning myself to three days of "not thinking about it", I calmed down. Nestled into one tent while we drank the abundant loot of whiskey we had brought with us, speculating about what looked like a fire in the distance, only to discover it was a blazing moon rising rapidly from behind the mountains, pouring out a radiant silver that just left us awestruck. I fell asleep quite quickly, but the night was punctuated with much restlessness due to the new surroundings and the utter panic when I needed to go to the
loo. Sid was shaken awake to be my lookout, and he escorted me chivalrously up the slope. I came back to see him missing - seconds later I noticed much neighing and turned to see Sid scampering down the slopes with one of our ponies in hot pursuit - he had startled it in the dark, while it was wooing its lady love and whether it leapt after him in anger with the interruption, or because it was already in an amorous mood - we will never know, since we dove back into the safety of our tent before the tattu tried anything!

The next morning, memories of lusting equines were driven out of our thoughts as we proceeded on
the second leg of our trek towards Gangbal.  The terrain was much more forgiving on this stretch and also varied - a forest trail, opening into alpine meadows replete with grazing sheep and horses and an army camp, inhabitants of the latter glaring forbiddingly at Sid who had a camera that could be spotted a mile away.  After
the first two hours, fatigue set in again and the landscape though lovely, was hardly noticed as we negotiated giant rocks from dried up riverbeds, concentrating on balance every step of the way. More ascents and previously undiscovered vertigo surfaced on narrow paths with sheer drops where everything swam before my eyes and I held Sid's hand tightly and sidled across the path, my back to the drop, singing to myself to keep calm (for some reason only Boy George songs came to mind at the time!).  As the trek carried on and I brought up the rear consistently, I thought many murderous thoughts of how I would strangle Sid next time he suggested a "medium" trek or perhaps drown him in the elusive lake which our guide promised we would reach in 15 minutes. After an hour we finally got there and though I didn't fully appreciate it at the time since I was so tired, it was definitely the first time I had seen anything like it -  an expanse of calm water, smooth like glass and invitingly blue, a snow capped glacier (Harmukh) rising behind it, feeding it with deliciously cool water. The evening passed in a pleasant haze of a brilliant starry night, fresh trout which was given to us by the neighbouring tent and which we devoured with sticky fingers, and more whisky. The latter was shared every evening with the accompanying shepherds who downed their share very quickly and though they were as sure footed as mountain goats when trotting up and down the slopes, they tried to convince us that they had tripped while holding the glass and spilt their share and needed some more! Experts at being one with nature now, finding convenient rocks and trees and being good look-outs had grown on us, though Shamsher probably needed more practice since Neha was almost discovered by a bunch of friendly shepherds and their ponies as they wandered by her with Shamsher looking out in the opposite direction!

We spent the next morning wandering around the lake, Shamsher and Neha trudged up further to the higher lake and to "touch the snow", while Sid and I settled beside a stream, which he almost fell into and only the thought of me yelling at him if he washed past me in the rapids ("I tolddd you not to stand at the edge, serves you right!") made him keep his balance. Though the trek can be done in one day (6-8 hours one way from Naragnag to Gangbal) and then back the next day, since we knew how long it had taken us to get there we decided to split our journey on the way back as well. Which was wise. Though we were more used to the terrain now, the initial excitement where the slopes only seemed to go downhill and we scampered through the meadows, our early enthusiasm once again waned after the first two hours.  Rocky river beds and loose pebbles on the forest trail slowed progress considerably and four hours later we were back at the hut from the first night. Murderous thoughts, a terrible headache from my sinus problem (bad idea to not wear a jacket the first day even though it was warm) and having finished our supply of water from the lake, put me in a bad mood, but once again it lifted as we settled into our tents and saw the dazzling Milky Way that night and laughed our fatigue away with Haldiram's namkeen, Jumpin mango juice (only available in the mountains of Kashmir since I haven't seen it anywhere else in ages!) and 'party mix', depleting our store of whisky and lightening the ponies' load for the next day. A brilliant morning dawned and it was the final descent to Naragnag which I hoped would be quicker than the ascent - wrong! Steep, rocky, loose rubble and an old knee injury forced me to walk sideways down the mountain the entire time holding on to Sid's hand, progressing at a snail's pace. Four hours later we were done, wobbly legged, burnt brown to a crisp, in need of hot showers, and after hydrating ourselves with copious amounts of water - we all definitely felt a huge sense of accomplishment.

I didn't appreciate it as much when I was on the trek since all we could do was concentrate on
navigating the terrain, but it was a first and hopefully not my last! Whether I will do a "medium" level trek like that again is still to be seen, but emboldened by being able to make it up and down, though slow and whiny, has definitely motivated me. Sid may think twice before suggesting we do it again since he is hoping my murderous thoughts won't translate into reality!

With such devastation in Kashmir right now, I'm thankful we were able to see some of the most captivating and awe inspiring parts of the state, and hope that soon others will be flocking there to see what we did. It was bloody hard, but I at least, felt bloody proud that we managed to scale the "mountains high and valleys low", just as Sid intended.

You can see more pictures of the trek and our trip here, and if you want to know about the Great Lakes trek, which includes Gangbal here is an overview from a trekker at