November 18, 2011

There and back again: climbing Stok Kangri

Before the climb

Four pairs of green eyes, gleaming in the light of my headlamp, stood between the Ladakhi toilet and me. Dzos - part Yak, part domestic cattle; harmless enough to circumvent in daylight, but it was 10.00 pm, and the irrationality darkness brings with it made them unapproachable. There was another toilet further away from base camp, and as I stumbled through the rocks towards it, I saw two more Dzos in my path. I looked around for company – reassurance - but if anyone else was awake in their tents, they hadn’t switched on a light. For several minutes I stood there, thinking about what had happened since I woke up not more than 15 minutes ago.

The alarm had shattered the silence – and night at 5000 metres above sea level in the absence of insects and animals is deathly quiet. It was the first time I had set it on the expedition. Tonight I couldn’t afford to rush my preparation. Tonight I couldn't be late. Karma had made that clear. I left the tent to finish the toilet visit before a queue built up, wearing only a thermal top and bottom under my fleece top and shorts. It had been enough for the previous night’s nature call. The more layers you wear, the more complicated it gets. Tonight was different. There was wind and rain. No, not rain. Snow. My first snowfall, on the night I was going to make my first Himalayan summit attempt. Or any summit attempt.

As I stood there, groggy and cold, ridiculously high above sea level, wondering how to pass these monstrous Dzos, Karma’s dinnertime speech a few hours ago replayed in my head. Since he had spoken quickly and in Hindi, I hadn’t understood it all. He got the point across, though. Stok Kangri was to be taken extremely seriously. If there were doubts about enduring the climb to 6120 meters and the descent, about enduring 15 hours in hostile, icy terrain, it would be best to drop out of the summit attempt before it began. There was no room for a ‘let’s see how it goes’ climber. You were either in it for the top, or not going to start.

So with Karma’s instructions in my sleepy head, the snow falling, and the Dzos in my way, I decided to return to my tent, crawl into my sleeping bag, and let the others leave. Except, I had to go to the toilet first.

I took a detour to avoid the animals and, after I had done my thing, everything changed. When I had begun the expedition eight days ago, with no climbing or serious trekking experience, I had no doubt that I would make the summit. That confidence wasn't drawn from having accomplished a similar feat of physical and mental endurance. I was naïve, and could have suffered from fatigue, dehydration, altitude sickness and physical injuries. I hadn’t, though.

Rohit, at one of our lower-altitude camps, had said the mountains were perfect for introspection and that we should reflect on our reasons for climbing Stok Kangri. A beautiful sentiment it was, but I remembered thinking, “I’m doing it because I thought it’d be fun and different from my seaside adventures,” and feeling shallow.

Having come this far, there was no physical reason not to attempt the summit. Whether I was mentally strong enough, after considering quitting because of factors as trivial as Dzos, snowfall and sleep, I did not know. I had to find out.

I returned to the tent and began to get dressed in the light of my headlamp. Thermal bottoms, trekking pants and waterproof pants - worn one on top of the other - for my legs. A thermal top, two dry-fit t-shirts, fleece top and a thin raincoat for my torso and arms. I looked at the down jacket I bought for this night. Amit, an experienced mountaineer whose respect for nature exceeds my own, had advised me against wearing it. “Use several thin layers,” he said. “The down jacket will make you sweat on the climb and dehydrate you.” I thought about carrying it in my backpack, in case I was cold, but decided against lugging the extra weight. A fleece muffler for my neck, a fleece hat for my head and ears, and Aravind’s sunglasses. Aravind, my tent-mate, wasn’t attempting the summit despite being one of the strongest and most methodical trekkers in the group. I didn’t know why. I didn’t ask either. I didn’t want more doubts than I already had. My lunch, three one-litre bottles containing electral, gatorade and water, dry fruits, three snickers bars, lip balm, toilet paper and a pair of crampons went into my backpack. I borrowed Aravind’s harness as well, since his was more modern than mine. I was set. Almost.

Ever since I saw the Koflach, snowshoes that weigh more than a kilo each, back in Leh, I knew I’d hate walking in them. They were large, clumsy and made each step harder to take. On summit day we’d have to take steps for 15 hours. But they keep your feet dry and warm. Namgyal, from whom we hired our equipment, had happened to spot my trekking shoes – Forclaz 900 – and said I could attempt the summit in them instead of the Koflach. The snow and water, he said, would not seep in. That was several days ago, though. I began to have doubts after watching the rest practice walking on ice in Koflach, while I used my trekking boots. Some said I was lucky, because I’d be able to climb with less effort. Others said I should not jeopardize my summit attempt by wearing untested shoes in hostile terrain. I was confused and, at some level, amused that the choice of footwear had acquired such importance. I made peace with my decision – to go for it in Forclaz – only after Amit and Aakash said they too were climbing in their own boots, having found the Koflach too heavy. Aakash told me later, as we were descending from the summit, that he was only 22. I did not believe him until I saw him book his flight ticket a few days later in Leh.

After wearing two pairs of socks for insulation, and a garbage bag over each foot for waterproofing, I laced up my boots, wore my clunky Goretex mittens, picked up my ice axe and left the tent. Our cook and helpers had tea ready. Soon we were all in a circle. There were prayers said, there were shouts of encouragement, and eventually there was silence as we, a line of wavering headlamps on a moonless night, made our way out of base camp for the summit of Stok Kangri at midnight.

The climb

Five had chosen to stay behind. Aravind; Murali senior, who I hope I can be as active and enthusiastic as when I’m 59; Umesh, who had always led the way despite having vertigo and diabetes; Murali junior, who didn't know how he would hold up and so put the group’s interests before his; and Shilpa, for whom reaching base camp was an incredible triumph of will power, considering she said this was her first attempt at anything remotely strenuous.

So thirteen climbers and six guides trekked up a steep, winding, narrow path through the scree and mud. My head was bent, my lamp lighting where my next step would be. “Focus on your breathing,” Amit had said, “never lose your breath as the air gets thinner. It’s hard to come back from there.” Remembering a line from one of the numerous blogs I’d read in Bangalore - “The tortoise always beats the hare up Stok Kangri.” – I went easy, walking within myself as the snow fell.

At our first resting and gathering point, as we waited for the last members of the group, I realised how different tonight would be. All through the expedition, our guides had been happy to wait for as long as we wanted to rest. Not tonight. We needed to summit and return before the sun began to melt the snow. They urged us to continue and soon we struck out on the second leg of the climb – to the glacier.

What glacier? In the darkness I couldn't tell when we reached it, when we walked over it, and when we were done with it. When the terrain underfoot changed from rock to permanent snow and ice I asked Gyal-Po, a guide, whether this was the glacier. He said it was an hour or more away. I did not ask again, trudging along in single-file, munching on dry fruits and stopping for frequent sips of water. Stop, breathe and drink, Karma, had said. Or else you’ll be winded on the move, gulp your water and choke.

Word arrived from the back that Rohit and Yogita had returned to base camp with one guide. They had been the quick-witted ones, and had lightened several dinner atmospheres. I tried to figure out who was ahead and behind me. Vikas, Rajesh, Hemant, Ravi, Amit and Aakash were in front. Meena, Sunand, Devyani and Santosh at the back. I couldn’t be sure though. At some point I caught up with those ahead of me, only because they were waiting, and the ones behind joined us. Karma assessed how everyone was doing and told Santosh he had to go back. Santosh was the most good-natured of our lot and he agreed with no fuss. He even offered us his stash of energy food. We were now 10 climbers and four guides.

I considered quitting. I was in discomfort not because of altitude sickness, though the elevation did exacerbate what I was feeling, but because of starting trouble. The first few kilometres of a run are the hardest; it gets much better after that. So I carried on.

I lost track of time. The wind was fierce, the snowfall incessant. In the light of my headlamp I could see only a blanket of white. Our group had split up. The relatively quicker climbers – Vikas, Amit, Hemant, I and Aakash – with Hong-Da as our guide, had gone on in front. On and on we went for hours. Until we couldn’t go on like that anymore. The gradient had got steeper and the snow deeper. We needed to rope up to each other and wear crampons on our shoes.

Putting one foot in front of the other to walk hadn’t been too hard, but when I bent down to wear my crampons, my head began to spin and I did not know how to put those three straps through three loops. All that practice of wearing them at base camp had been in vain. As I sat on my ass, helpless, the fatigue hit. I began to feel colder and angrier. I’d been waiting for the sun to rise ever since we set out, craving some warmth. It had risen, of course, but it only served to light up the barren landscape in an eerie, dim light. And now we could see the snowstorm, and not just feel it hitting the sides of our faces. Visibility couldn’t have been more than 15 metres. Amit helped me with my crampons. How he had the energy and composure to help others, after wearing his, I don't know. Soon we had spikes under our shoes and the five of us were roped together in single file.

I learned later that when the other group reached this point, Devyani and Ravi turned around with a guide to head back to base camp. It was a tremendously long walk to make alone. Devyani is a marathon runner and experienced trekker; Ravi had been the Road Runner of our group and also taught yoga to those who wanted to learn. That I carried on was probably down to sheer luck, I began to think, and six litres of water a day.

I wondered how badly the altitude and the cold had affected them. I hoped they were okay. However, I also realised, chillingly, that I didn’t care too much. Rather, I wasn’t able to care too much. I was pretty shattered myself and did not have the faculty for compassion. It was a horrifically selfish feeling. Amrita, a close friend, had planned to do this climb with me, but had to pull out of the expedition. I wondered how I’d have reacted if she was in trouble on the mountain. I hoped I would have felt differently, and been more humane. I couldn’t be sure, though. Is there room for humanity at 6000 metres above sea level? Certainly, but this novice climber was feeling nothing. Perhaps, it will come with experience. I hope it does, otherwise I won’t be climbing too many more mountains.

My feet were freezing. My boots were keeping out the snow so my feet were dry, but my Forclaz weren’t as warm as the Koflach. I couldn’t feel my toes. I couldn’t wiggle them at all. I worried about frostbite. One of the guides asked me if I wanted to return to base camp. I don’t think I gave him an answer.

The climb was a blur after that. We clambered for ages over a ridge, with drops of thousands of meters on either side, which we couldn’t see because of the snowstorm. I looked back at Aakash and saw him sleeping on his feet, hunched over his ice axe. Desperate for rest, I yelled at the three in front of me to slow down. Amit kept urging me forward, knowing that the longer you are motionless in the snow, the colder you get, and so your body expends energy in trying to keep you warm. Keep moving. Vikas was a rockstar, shouting words of encouragement from way out in front, when he could have conserved the energy. Hemant, earlier in the climb, had annoyed me more than once by asking me to open his backpack and get stuff out for him. I had to remove my clumsy Goretex gloves and expose my hands to the cold. My anger seems insanely petty in hindsight. I had sensed gamesmanship (on both sides) in my interactions with Hemant since the expedition began. It hasn’t been so since the summit. He’s encouraged me to climb Nandi hills on my cycle since, and during that ride, made me think about running. He ran his first ultra-marathon in November. I did 25 kilometres.

We met some climbers descending from the summit. How much farther to the top? We asked them. Some said half an hour, others much more. Our questions angered our guide Hong-da and he told us not to ask anyone. Only on my descent did I realize why. When another climber asked us how much farther to the top, I realised I had no idea how long I’d been descending. Absolutely no clue.

The summit wasn’t visible to us as we approached it because of the snowstorm. And suddenly, just like that, we were on it. There was nowhere left to climb. It was 8.00 am. We were 6120 metres above sea level. Standing next to prayer flags. The temperature was minus ridiculous. We should have been able to see the Zanskar and Karakoram ranges of the Himalayas. We should have been able to see K2, the world’s second highest peak, and supposedly the hardest to climb. Instead, we couldn’t see more than 10 metres. And all I wanted to do was get the fuck down.

February 25, 2010

The enthusiasm remains

4.00 pm. I’d just handed over commentary to a colleague. Sachin Tendulkar and Dinesh Karthik were batting India to a commanding position but this was just another one-day contest with little context, so I didn’t plan to stick around after my shift and watch. I needed to buy groceries for the pasta dinner a couple of friends were coming home for. Besides, the television coverage was tiresome. Advertisements at all the wrong times – we didn’t see replays of the Sehwag wicket, or the blow Langeveldt took to the face, until much after it happened. Tendulkar played some stunning inside-out drives through the off side. One against Parnell stood out – he came forward, made room by moving towards leg to counter the angle from round the wicket and a strong on-side field, and placed it between fielders at cover and point. But we were watching commercials before the ball had reached the boundary.

4.30 pm. Lalit Modi venting on Twitter regarding IPL security concerns made me stay back a while and organise a news report. During that time Tendulkar reached his 46th century – cutting Duminy to point – but I’d barely noticed. Friends ask me all the time whether I ever tire of watching cricket because of my job. I tell them I haven’t and that’s the truth. But it’s also true that it takes a lot more to excite me now than it did before. A mere hundred – a first-innings one that too – on a flat pitch in an ODI that will fade from memory like a dream just doesn’t do it anymore. Tendulkar played terrific shots during his hundred but he always does and, in the absence of the extraordinary, we’ve seen it before – 45 times. A colleague said I should write a piece if Tendulkar gets 200. I said he should do it, and break the record for most-read article on the site. Writing about Tendulkar is intimidating. Where do you begin? What hasn’t been said already?

We always talk of the ODI double-century when a batsman gets to a hundred by around the 25th over. But he usually gets undone by cramp – Anwar 194 v India – gives it away – Gilchrist out for 172 in the 45th over against Zimbabwe – or runs out of time – Tendulkar 186* against New Zealand.

So I left to do my shopping and logged into the commentary from my mobile to keep tabs on the game. India were 176 for 1 when I left office but the scorecard on my phone was stuck at 163 for 1, with Tendulkar on 96. Called the office, was told he was on 111, and that was the last I thought about it for a while.

I needed parsley, olive oil, black olives, peppers, mushrooms and bread. I got everything but the mushrooms at Nilgiris on Brigade road. But the mushrooms were important so I walked towards the Gourmet Store on MG road. They had oyster mushrooms. I wanted button. The sales girl said try Spencer’s. I did. They too had oyster, no button. Apparently button mushrooms are in short supply and great demand. I then asked Au Bon Pain – an excellent café right next to Spencer’s - whether they’d sell me some from their kitchen. I don’t think they understood me.

Thus began a period of aimless walking, one that led me towards the new Natural ice creams parlour on St. Mark’s road. I decided to wait there until my friend arrived at 5.30 pm. I tasted watermelon (excellent), papaya-pineapple (surprisingly good) and strawberry (very creamy, mild fruit flavour) before deciding on the chickoo (if you like the fruit, you’ll love the ice cream). I decided to take a tub of strawberry home for dessert and made polite conversation with the lady behind the counter.

There was time to kill before my friend arrived and I checked whether the commentary on the phone was working again. It was. India were 283 for 2, Tendulkar was around 157, and ten overs remained.

What was I doing? Shopping for mushrooms? Sampling ice creams? The enormity of what I would miss hit home. You’ll understand if you’ve grown up crossing fingers while Tendulkar took strike, felt despair every time he fell with India chasing 250, prayed each time the Cricinfo scorecard took longer than usual to refresh that it was the other batsman, and not Tendulkar, who was out.

I got into an auto and urged him to drive to the Manipal hospital. Fast. Incredibly, he didn’t know the way but wanted to know if I had seen the fire on Airport road the previous day. I was barely listening, staring at my phone – “40.6 Langeveldt to Tendulkar, six, 138.5 kph, cross-batted heave, quite uncharacteristic of Tendulkar but he's in his zone today, slightly short on the off and he shovels it into the crowd behind deep midwicket, brings up the 300” – barely remembering to yell directions to the driver.

Bad traffic doesn’t bother me usually. What can you do but grin and bear it? Today I was cursing. “41.5 van der Merwe to Tendulkar, FOUR, 102.8 kph, absolutely hammered, bowled it on a length on middle, makes room and kills it over the bowler's head for a one bounce four. 41.6 van der Merwe to Tendulkar, SIX, 109.0 kph, Tendulkar's plundering the visitors here, goes past Kapil Dev's 175 with a thunderous six over long-off, not quite there to hit but he knew where it was heading.” He was 179.

A week ago I had decided to delay leaving home for work until Tendulkar reached his Test century in Kolkata. He was on 92 around 3.35 pm, on 97 at 3.55 pm and I could delay leaving no further. I prayed for him to wait a bit today. “42.6 Kallis to Tendulkar, FOUR, 128.0 kph, Tendulkar equals his highest ODI score, a terrible full toss on middle, worked away wide of short fine all the way to the ropes.” A single off the next ball he faced took him past his personal best.

I was still two kilometers from home and a small and selfish part of me wanted him to get out. I didn’t want to miss watching Tendulkar go past 194 or 200. I considered stopping and watching it in front of a shop, but clarity thought wasn’t what I was having. My panic was irrational, but it mattered. And then there was more traffic on Airport road, leading up to the signal.

Got out of the auto about 500 meters from my house, shoved Rs 60 into the driver’s hand – keep the change – and sprinted home, lap top bag slung across my shoulder, right hand clutching half a kilo of ice cream, and me cursing the extra weight around my belly. I missed Tendulkar going past Anwar’s 194. I read that he flicked Parnell for two to break the record - Boucher shook his hand, he didn’t celebrate too much - when I stopped to catch my breath 100 meters from home.

Tendulkar was on 196 when I burst through the door and switched on the TV. He took his time after that, picking off singles. Dhoni had most of the strike, clobbering meaningless sixes and fours when all everyone wanted him to do was take one, or not if it was the last ball of the over. Tendulkar, on 199, finally got strike with four balls left in the innings. He did it with a steer.

October 08, 2009

Chance

He squinted at his watch. It was a quarter to midnight: certainly not the appropriate hour to stop a familiar-looking stranger on an otherwise desolate street and check if it was really him. He always thought of the consequences first and, being the cautious sort, they were always exaggerated. He imagined being treated suspiciously, or even rudely, by the man. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself, especially since he had just moved into the neighbourhood, and was staying only temporarily. And so he walked on, fiddling with his Ipod until the first familiar track played, and hummed the opening lines of, “Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody …” It felt appropriate, like most songs do. Not in its detail - he didn’t know anyone with a sister who looked like a feline Frankenstein – but in its spirit. It wasn’t true that he didn’t have anybody either. They were all just extremely far away, and were probably sleeping or working, and sometimes proximity was everything.

The walk home from the station took between 15 and 20 minutes on average, depending on the time of day. On a sunny evening he would stroll, not bothering with the Ipod, say hello to passer-bys, make way for joggers, cyclists, and dog-walkers, and watch jets leave streaks of white on the cornflower-blue sky. Nights, weeknights in particular, were different. Often he wouldn’t see a soul on the street from the time he left the station, having only the wind, the sound of his heavy footfall, and sometimes the rain for company until he reached his door. He walked faster at night, and listened to music, to blot out the loneliness of his short journey. He used mundane landmarks – a curve in the road, a community rubbish bin, an intersection – to divide the walk into stages. There was no other reason to do so than to pass the time.

Stage three was the longest, and darkest, and tonight was colder than previous nights. He was walking as briskly as possible, without making the step up to jogging, but decided to slow down to fish out his Ipod. He struggled to untangle the headphones in the streetlight and that was when he heard the crunch of dead leaves underfoot. He wasn’t walking on any and so he paused to ascertain where it was coming from. Before he could turn around to check behind, he saw movement and made out silhouettes of two people walking towards him. Their voices told him one was male, the other female, but they suddenly crossed the road and continued to walk on the opposite side, causing him to wonder whether they had done so because they had spotted a stranger wearing a hooded sweatshirt walking towards them. He always thought other people took more notice of him than they actually did. As he passed them, even though they were on the opposite side and it was dark, he caught a glimpse of the man’s face, his tall frame, and was immediately sure he had seen him before. The woman, he had not. They passed by without casting a sideways glance. And so he reached home, waited for the line “I don’t know when, confused about how as well …” before switching off his Ipod, and unlocked the front door. He knew the code to disable the burglar alarm by heart, and had keyed it in correctly when less sober, yet it always made him nervous.

He had forgotten about last night’s stranger the next morning. Such a thing – a stubborn answer that remained buried in the nether regions of his mind – would have tormented him a few years ago, but not now. And besides, he didn’t have anyone around to prove himself right to. Weeks went by and he got used to his nocturnal walks, learning to enjoy the quiet that darkness brought, and used his Ipod less frequently. He had found a routine – his groove – and settled comfortably in it. And then, several days later, he saw the stranger again

He saw the woman first, getting on to the same train he took every morning, and she had striking eyes. He had definitely not seen her before. After a second glimpse of the man – in the light of day – he knew when and where. It was incredible that he should meet someone he once shared a table with for a few hours, years ago, in another country on a different continent. He went up to say hello and, after a few seconds, was recognized in return. They had been visiting family but were setting out on their honeymoon the next day. It was a shame today didn’t happen ten days ago, the stranger said. It could well have, though he didn’t say that in return.

**

He was in the lobby of a hotel in another city, waiting for the shower to stop, so that he could dash off. His work was done and his impatience grew as the intensity of the rain increased. He had decided he could wait no longer, and had pulled the jacket out of his bag to help brave the cold weather, when he heard someone hesitantly call out his name, and his last name. But he knew no one here and no one knew him. He swiveled, searching among the gathered crowd, and saw her. It had been at least five years since he had seen her last, in another country, and they hadn’t known each other well even then. He was glad to see a familiar face, though, and stopped to catch up. She looked lovely. But his work was done and he had to leave. They exchanged phone numbers and made plans to meet for dinner, or a drink. But never did.

**

He usually arrived as the trains were about to leave and so he was forced to enter the first door he reached. He was early today, and so he walked along the length of one, deciding against one compartment because he saw a leaking soda can on the floor, against another because it had too many children, and finally choosing one because someone had left a newspaper he liked on one of the seats. There are W train routes in the city, X trains every hour, Y compartments on each train, and each compartment has Z seats. The permutations and combinations are infinite and so when the train stopped at the fifth station he was startled, astonished and unnerved to see two people - whom he once stayed with for a week on a remote tropical island - get on and sit less than six feet away from him. It wasn’t quarter to midnight and so he went up and said hello. They didn’t recognize him immediately but, after he reminded them of a curious incident or two during his stay on the island, the penny dropped. He took it as a sign to return to the island again. He hasn’t managed to go yet.

May 25, 2009

There's a hole in the world like a great black pit

I was running up the stairs in the office – I’ve never been a walker when it comes to tackling staircases on my own – when I bumped into my editor. I’d been feeling a twinge of disappointment at not being given the New Zealand tour, even more so since last year’s trip to Pakistan had been scuttled because of security concerns. Those of the players, not mine.

My editor asked me what my plans for the summer were. Cricket, a few trips home, other holidays elsewhere, perhaps a wedding or two, I thought. Nothing in particular, I replied. He laughed and asked me if I intended to get married or something. He could have asked me what my plans for the next seven summers were; I’m that far from getting married. And then he said they were planning to send me to England for four months. Twenty20 World Cup, Ashes and daylight from 4.00 am to 9.30 pm. Awesome.

That was a few months ago. Since then, I’ve been planning for the trip and executing. Some things were easy, like making plans to drink beer by the Thames, others more painful, like fixing my teeth.

The first substance I ever tasted was a bit of chocolate, or so I’ve been told. And since then I’ve ignored my parents’ advice of eating a reasonable amount of sweets at a time, stolen from my sister’s share of goodies, and played the sympathy card to partake of my mother’s quota too. And I’m paying for it now, despite brushing twice a day. There were gaping holes in two teeth, a not-so-gaping one in another, and a few other patches of black on some others.

The cavities looked terrible but only one of them had hurt, and only once. The timing of the pain couldn’t have been worse, though. It was while I was in Malaysia for the under-19 World Cup in 2008. I had planned to do some traveling after the tournament but during the last week of games, my tooth began to ache. I remember not having any fun even though I was watching cricket, drinking beer and eating barbequed burgers from Australian fans because of the pain. I cancelled my travel plans and decided to go home and see a dentist. As soon as I landed in India, the damn pain mysteriously disappeared and I forgot all about it.

Dentists in London are frightfully expensive and so I made an appointment for a check up. I visited him ten more times, had about 25 anesthetic injections, had drills, ultraviolet light, and soldering irons put into my mouth, and then it was done. I had two shiny ceramic caps and several other fillings, a massive dent in my bank balance, but the ability to chew with confidence.

The trips to the dentist were far from terrible. I would get jabbed with the needle, my jaw would slacken, and I would listen to good music for two hours while he did his thing. The injections were a breeze too. What I hated was the gooey paste he used to make a mould of my tooth. Even though it tasted of fresh mint, it was gag inducing. It was probably due to the importance I give to texture and consistency of food. It’s why I detest brinjal, the only vegetable – a mass of pulpy, seedy muck – that I cannot put in my mouth. Disgustor. Would nutella taste as good if it had the consistency of brinjal, or the texture of paada?

Most of my free evenings – they were rare while the IPL was on – were spent at the dentist. My hair grew longer than it ever had, my laundry piled up, and my belly grew. I visited my family in Calicut, friends in Madras, cancelled some trips, and made unscheduled ones. I saw the prince of Pala get married too.


2009 has been a weird year. Never before have I heard bad news so regularly. Ragupathy thinks it’s because of shanni. There’s been a hilarious succession of complications with my England trip too. Details of accommodation, a cash advance, a new-fangled accounting process for travel expenses still need to be ironed out. If everything goes according to plan, I hope to be in London on Saturday.

May 13, 2009

It feels so right

I was at work at 8am, seven and a half hours after I had left office the previous day. Sleepy, hungry and cranky. Then the phone rang and the news I heard in those four minutes made me genuinely happy. It’s a rare and precious emotion – genuine happiness. A feeling of selfless joy and it transformed my day instantly.

They’re a shining example to people who say long-distance is too hard. Theirs is a shining example of the effort it takes to make the most important things in life work. I’ve spent a lot of time in their company, through happy and not-so-happy times, (New Year’s Eve, even) and not once have I felt anything less than perfectly welcome. They are two of the best people I know. So here’s to the two of you. You deserve all the happiness that’s coming your way.

They let college go, and weren’t fazed,
They always have their purple haze.

April 22, 2009

A script from the crypt

Decided to check one of my Yahoo mailboxes after a long time. Came across something I had written in 2004. I can't be sure what made me write it but I have a vague feeling that it was an incident in K nags - a couple of street kids wanted to watch a cricket match at one of the shops. The shopkeeper yelled at them. Another one asked them to come in and watch. I do remember when I wrote this - in Kausthab's room, in between mindless hours of playing MOHAA (or was it Miami Vice?).

**

I am entering a fancy theatre, going to watch the latest movie. My eyes wander to the stalls selling ‘Pepsi’ and ‘Popcorn’. I cannot read the signs but I know what they are from years of wondering what they taste like. Fifty rupees for a bottle of water? What am I doing here? My mind cannot fathom but my legs take me towards the inviting display of various temptations. My hand reaches into my pocket and draws out a wad of hundred rupee notes. I have never held a hundred rupee note in my hand before.

The fancy theatre fades away, the neon Pepsi and Popcorn signs are turned off. I am awake and reality bites hard. The five feet of stony floor which serves as my bed has been encroached upon by the limbs of the other sleeping children. We are seven, in a space meant for barely three. Seated at a table in the corner are my mother and father. Or at least I think they are. They have been around for as long as I can remember but my memory fails me often. They do not love me. They do not ill treat me either.

I set out, to seek my fortune that day. My stomach is racked with pangs of hunger. My elder brother had snatched away a sizable chunk of an already meagre dinner the previous night. I make my way to this large arch with lots of grassy ground around it. I do no know what it is called. I watch as groups of boys quarrel during a game of cricket. I watch longingly, hoping that they will ask me to join their game. They never do. Perhaps it’s because I’m too young, I tell myself.

It begins to rain. Suddenly everyone seems to be running trying to avoid getting wet as though the water would somehow scar them. I hear somebody say in dismay that her clothes are ruined. I smile. I have no such worries. I’m glad it is raining. I can wash myself. I used to have a bath in the fountains near the arch. But now they have a policeman there to stop us.

It must be a good day. Someone has left a packet of food behind on the grass. I do not have to worry about lunch anymore. I better get down to work, I tell myself. If I do not take home my share of alms my parents will be angry. I do not like to beg but I have never been taught another trade. Perhaps one day I will disobey my parents and refuse to beg, but not today. I wander up to cars, wiping their windscreens and knocking at their windows hoping some appreciation will be shown for my service. I rarely receive any. Soon my quota of alms for the day is done. I really have been lucky today.

I’m beginning to feel hungry again. A kind shopkeeper once gave me food when I did not have the energy to walk anymore. I find his shop easily. There’s a crowd in his shop, gathered around a television. Is that Dravid I see batting? My thoughts of hunger disappear as I worm my way through the crowd to catch a glimpse of the match. I may not know the name of that arch but I do know the name of everyone in the cricket team.

The match is over. It does not matter who won. I enjoyed the game. I try and watch whenever I can. As I make my way home my mind begins to wander. I’ve always wanted to watch the Indian team play. But they hardly ever come to this city. Perhaps I should go to Bangalore. I dismiss the thought as absurd.

Since that day, the thought of going to Bangalore kept coming back to me. I ignored it for a while but after a point I couldn’t. I am now in Bangalore. I don’t understand the language very well and I feel colder at night than I did before. I do not have the freedom that I did before. I have a job now. It’s a bit like gardening. I have to cut grass, dig up and relay the earth and when it rains I have to cover the ground at the Chinnaswamy stadium with big plastic sheets. And I get to see India play at least once a year.

**

Saw a familiar face on the bus today. Thought hard about where I had seen him before. Finally got it. He looked like an Indian Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson in The Shining). Same crazy eyes that wander all over the place, same thin mouth that droops downwards. Decided I had to take a photo with my phone. The resemblance was uncanny. Positioned camera into nonchalant yet strategic position, zoomed in as far as I could. Then saw pesky co-passenger peeking into my phone and decided to abort. What a prat.

April 21, 2009

Reality blogging

I don't like reality television. Hate it in fact. But over the last two days I've become addicted to checking what purports to be an IPL player's blog. When I first read it on April 19, the blog had no followers and the profile had been viewed 30 times. Check it out now.

**

It's phone bill day in office. I tell a colleague I can guess what his bill amount is. He asks me to go ahead. Rs 8400, I tell him. He opens his bill. It's Rs. 8400.53. Freaky trivial coincidences haven't happened to me in a while.

**

Take the AC Volvo bus back from work to home. The traffic is heavier than usual. Get off at the Leela and seeing that the cars on my side of the road have come to a standstill, I wander across listening to the radio, not really paying attention to what's going on around me. I reach the divider and then begin to walk across because the other side of the road is empty. Suddenly someone grabs me and shoves me back, what the ... It's a cop and he's yelling in Kannada. Then I notice everyone standing around, not crossing the road. This hasn't happened to me since school. Storm clouds gather, the winds pick up, people are getting restless. I wonder what would happen if an ambulance needed to enter Manipal hospital. Then I hear a siren, not an ambulance, a cop car. Then another and then some more. I count 18 cars in the convoy and when one of them with funky aerials passed by, my cell phone radio burst into static. Signal jammers. Cops relent and people on both sides cross the road like the parted Red Sea coming to rest.